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It’s Not Just “The Blues”:
Recognizing Signs of Depression in Employees

By Eric Hipple

Since 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 done

Jessica 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 breath.

Both 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 attempted suicide.

So how do you help a potentially depressed employee or coworker?

First, 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 alcohol abuse

  • Increase in Physical Complaints -- headaches, back pain, stomachaches, etc.

  • 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 appearance

  • Low self-esteem – expressions of worthlessness, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred

Warning 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.

Okay, 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.

  • Be approachable and ready to listen.

  • If a work issue is causing the depression, use your managerial power to remedy situations that have caused the condition.

  • If 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.

  • Keep an open mind and be flexible. Education is the best way to reduce the stigma associated with depression.

Referred 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.

  • The 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 medication.

  • In severe cases, including those of sufferers who attempt suicide, hospitalization may be required. The employee also may need to take a disability leave.

  • The 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.

Despite 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.

Read other articles and learn more about Eric Hipple.

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