How to Identify and Help a Depressed Employee

Employees come in all forms. Some are intense go-getters who manage to surpass your expectations every day. Others just manage to get most of their work done and narrowly avoid getting fired each week. But both of these workers are equally likely to develop depression. How can you recognize a depressed employee? More importantly, what should you do when you identify depression in one of your workers? These simple steps will help.

Know the Signs of Depression

The way you recognize depression is by noticing significant changes in their behavior, always for the worse. Your go-getter becomes the just-getting-by-guy, and your slacker digresses into someone who barely functions at all. Some tell-tale signs of a depressed employee are:

  • Repeatedly failing to finish tasks they usually complete quickly
  • Forgetting things they were ordinarily on top of
  • Increasingly error prone
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Having difficulty making decisions
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or in social contacts they used to enjoy
  • Excessive tiredness and fatigue
  • Using more sick or personal days than is normal, especially if the excuses are growing increasingly flimsy

Again, the primary indicator is a change for the worse, or a marked digression in performance and behavior.

Don’t Avoid the Problem

It’s tempting to try to overlook the situation and hope it goes away. Well-meaning managers often try to take up the slack for a valuable employee who is struggling hoping the situation will resolve itself. However, in cases of true clinical or situational depression, the employee probably won’t improve until they receive treatment. Schedule a meeting with the employee in a private place where you aren’t likely to be disturbed and express your concern.

During the meeting, focus on their identifiable behaviors and avoid vague statements like, “you seem withdrawn,” or, “you just haven’t been yourself lately,” because these concerns are easily dismissed. Make definable statements such as, “you used to be here every morning at 8, and now you barely make it by 8:30,” or, “you used to complete those reports in two hours, and now it takes you six.”

Offer the Depressed Employee Help

Before meeting with the employee, check with human resources to make sure you understand all of the help offered to employees in need of counseling or mental health treatment. Some companies offer more than is available in the health insurance package, such as an agreement with a local mental health facility or extra time off to attend counseling sessions.

Find out everything the company offers that the employee might take advantage of, and express your commitment to keeping this problem confidential. The prime reason for an employee refusing to seek help is fear of becoming stigmatized, scrutinized, or discriminated against. Explain what the benefits plan offers in terms of assistance, such as free counseling, reduced rates on antidepressant medication, or other benefits and programs that might help.

Set Appropriate Boundaries

Though you are compassionate and understanding about the employee’s depression, you still must set boundaries and expectations for them to meet. Don’t allow them to use you as a counselor, and don’t allow them to slip by without performing acceptable work just because you feel sorry for them. To do so doesn’t help them, it merely enables them to forgo seeking help and getting better. After the initial discussion, encourage them to get help from a qualified mental health professional, and continue to set reasonable goals and expectations for improving their work performance.

Follow Through With Your Commitment to Help

Though you can’t allow the depressed employee to use you as a sounding board for their problems, you do need to continue to make sure they are getting the right help and that it’s working. Ask them about it regularly, but always in complete confidence. Monitor their work. If you notice things slipping, check in to see how treatment is progressing. If the work improves, be quick and generous to encourage their progress. However, do give the treatments time. Counseling and/or medication can take as long as six weeks to show marked progress, and in treating depression, ups and downs in progress are completely normal. So long as the employee is showing improvement over time, things are probably progressing normally.

Once you’ve been through this with one employee, recognizing the signs and addressing the problem of depression in workers will be easier for you in the future. Additionally, you’ll develop a management skill increasingly lacking in today’s workplace: compassion.


Christy Wilson received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Samford University and pursued a career in newspaper writing and editing before converting to a full-time online writer. She now works as a freelancer from her lakeside home in Pell City, Alabama.

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