It’s Not Just “The Blues”:
Recognizing Signs of Depression in Employees
By Eric Hipple
his wife filed for divorce several months ago, Mike has lost a lot
of weight; his suits hang off his once-bulky frame. Mike’s face
looks hollow and gaunt, and he’s having trouble getting his work
keeps complaining of headaches and stomach aches. She has called in
sick seven times over the last month. Today, when he returned from
a two-hour lunch, you could have sworn you smelled alcohol on her
Mike and Jessica are showing possible symptoms of depression, which
costs businesses tens of billions of dollars in the United States
each year, mostly due to reduced productivity. But not only are
Mike’s and Jessica’s careers in jeopardy, their very lives may be in
danger. Depression is one of the strongest risk factors for
do you help a potentially depressed employee or coworker?
educate yourself about depression. Contrary to traditional
thought, depression is not a personal failing; it is a clinically
defined mental disorder that occurs when the brain’s chemistry
becomes unbalanced. Fortunately, depression is highly treatable.
Though each sufferer and situation is unique, some common depression
risk factors and symptoms follow:
Recent Loss -- through death, divorce, separation, broken
relationship, injury, loss of job, money, status,
self-confidence, self-esteem, or loss of religious faith
Change in Personality -- sadness, withdrawal, irritability,
anxiety, tiredness, indecisiveness, apathy, and loss of interest
in friends, hobbies, or previously enjoyed activities
Change in Behavior -- inability to concentrate on work or on
routine tasks. Chronic tardiness or calling in sick, drug or
Increase in Physical Complaints -- headaches, back pain,
Change in Sleep Patterns – complaints of insomnia, often with
early waking or oversleeping, nightmares
Change in Appearance and Eating Habits – noticeable weight gain
or weight loss, picking at food or overeating, unkempt
self-esteem – expressions of
worthlessness, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred
flags for possible suicide include: talking about dying or
disappearing (“if I didn’t wake up tomorrow, my family would be
better off”); making specific plans for suicide; previous suicide
attempts; giving away favorite things; making out wills; arranging
for the care of pets; extravagant spending; agitation;
hyperactivity; restlessness or lethargy.
you see some symptoms. Now what?
Approach the employee sensitively, informally and privately to
establish the root of the problem – remember, he may not be
suffering from depression.
approachable and ready to listen.
work issue is causing the depression, use your managerial power
to remedy situations that have caused the condition.
your company has an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), remind
the employee that it is a free resource available to her. An EAP
counselor also can advise you how best to approach the employee.
an open mind and be flexible. Education is the best way to
reduce the stigma associated with depression.
to the EAP, the employee is now receiving treatment. What does this
mean? How do you help?
Depending on the severity of the depression, treatment may
include talk therapy and/or medication. During the employee’s
recovery, please keep in mind:
Antidepressant medication usually takes a few weeks to take
effect. Don’t expect dramatic results right away.
sufferer may need to switch medications and/or dosage levels
several times to find the right “fit” for her unique brain
chemistry. Please be patient and aware that the patient may be
suffering some side effects as her body adjusts to the
severe cases, including those of sufferers who attempt suicide,
hospitalization may be required. The employee also may need to
take a disability leave.
employee may need a flexible work schedule as he recovers. In
many cases, the structure and distractions of work can help the
healing process. Work with the employee to determine the right
amount of work for him as he heals.
Please be sensitive to the employee’s right to privacy. Consult
with an EAP practitioner about the best way to handle the
situation with coworkers and/or clients.
mounting evidence that depression is a medical condition, just as
diabetes and high blood pressure are, a stigma still surrounds
mental illness. Employers and coworkers often feel uncomfortable
broaching the subject with their colleagues. But for the sake of
your business and for the employee in question, intervention often
is necessary. Remember, silence can be deadly.
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