Workplace Depression Affects Employee Morale, Productivity and Effectiveness

By Christopher Knippers, Ph.D.

Lynette had a deep, embarrassing secret. She had been the star employee of the company. Everyone loved her. She was now a very capable manager. Even her divorce a couple of years ago hadn’t seemed to affect her. Lynette was the one who always had a smile, a new idea and tireless dedication to her department. But for the past few weeks there was a growing change in Lynette. She started being late to work, her attitude was negative, and she was even short-tempered. The quality of Lynette’s work was slipping.

One of her employees reluctantly approached her privately and asked if everything was okay but Lynette denied that anything was wrong. Finally, a close co-worker had noticed Lynette no longer mentioned her ex-husband, Paul, who was also Lynette’s “best friend,” and asked her about it. At that, Lynette finally broke into sobs and revealed the secret she had been keeping. She had secretly hoped since her divorce that Paul would come back to her, but he had remarried recently. Since then, Lynette had fallen in to a deep depression. She could no longer keep her life-long secret of extreme low self-esteem hidden from the view of others.

This case of a depressed employee is very typical of how depression affects a company’s productivity, morale and effectiveness. Depression often shows up in people and at times that might not be expected. Life’s challenges sometimes overwhelm people who are already vulnerable for some pre-existing reason. People who are most vulnerable to having depression triggered by the typical stressors of life are those who derive an inordinate amount of their fulfillment in life from either:

  • Harmonious interpersonal relationships

  • Obtaining a high amount of positive recognition for high achievements

If anything goes wrong in a relationship for the first type, or if the second type falls short of his/her own high standards of achievement and recognition, depression can be triggered. Management should be aware when dealing with employees who have a sudden change in:

  • Personality

  • Attitude

  • Mood

  • Productivity

  • Efficiency

  • Absenteeism

  • Energy level

  • Personal appearance

If these signs show up, it is likely that you are dealing with the all-too-common problem of depression in the workplace. Of course, some of these can be indicative of other problems such as physiological disorders or chemical dependency; but in any event, management does need to intervene. It is important to find out what the problem is and what can be done to correct it.

Here are some things that you can do to be proactive in getting your employee back on track:

1. Confront the situation quickly: A gentle, caring and direct confrontation needs to be made. A person who the employee knows, trusts, and respects is the ideal person to make the confrontation. The designated person needs to avoid sounding at all condescending or authoritarian; but genuine concern needs to be expressed and specific behaviors need to be directly pointed out.

One way to do this is for the person doing the confronting to open with an admission of their own personal struggles, past or present, and how that affected their work behavior. Then they can point out to the depressed person that some specific behaviors have been noticed. But avoid saying anything like, “Everyone is noticing…” The depressed person is embarrassed already and doesn’t need to think that everyone is talking about him or her.

2. Be empathic: Empathy is the mental and emotional attitude of actually entering into another person’s experience, and standing “beside” them in their feelings, rather than standing above them in pity, judgment or of being “above it all.” Empathy says, “I’ve been where you are emotionally, and I know it’s rough.” This supportive attitude helps the depressed person immensely because they will no longer feel alone in their pain.

3. Listen to their story: Every depressed person has a story that they are longing to tell, and it is a huge relief to him or her to know that someone cares to listen to their life experience. In fact, when a depressed person hears himself relating his story, he can often gain a new perspective on the situation, and sometimes he even realizes a solution.

4. Provide a solution to the employee: A counselor needs to be made available at an affordable rate for that employee. There are some brief forms of therapy or counseling that are extremely effective. Cognitive therapy is the most highly respected form of brief therapy today. Medication alone is not the answer.

5. Offer practical assistance within the workplace: Maybe there are some ergonomic concerns that can be addressed; or maybe they need a little temporary assistance with their duties to get back on track. A day or two off work or temporarily reduced hours can help.

6. Follow up: An occasional friendly inquiry about how the person is doing is appreciated and helps the person feel supported. Support is key to overcoming and preventing depression.

7. Create a culture of support: Assign someone on your staff who can be trusted to listen non-judgmentally to any concern that an employee has. Very few employees would abuse such a privilege. Most people do receive fulfillment from accomplishing quality work. They just sometimes hit snags in life and need to vent.

Depression can affect a company’s productivity, morale and effectiveness. Recognizing the signs and understanding what kind of help and support can be offered will be extremely helpful for dealing with a depressed employee. A little human kindness and compassion goes a long way toward attaining your organization’s goals.

Read other articles and learn more about Dr. Christopher Knippers.

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