Employee depression may impact productivity and morale, while a poor working environment may trigger or worsen depression.

Many of us spend a significant amount of time in the workplace. Even those who work from home spend a good portion of the day on the computer or connecting with coworkers through emails, phone calls, and Zoom meetings.

When an employee has depression it can have a ripple effect, impacting company morale and productivity. When depression goes unnoticed in the workplace, it can lead to high employee turnover.

What are the signs of employee depression, and what can be done to help?

Depressive symptoms vary significantly among individuals. One person might become very quiet and melancholy, while another may seem more irritable or angry. Another person may hardly show symptoms at all or even seem happy.

While it’s important not to “diagnose” someone, it’s good to be aware of the many faces of depression.

The following symptoms of depression offer a guideline for what to look out for in your employees:

  • a persistent low mood
  • increase in absences, late arrivals, calling in sick a lot with varying reasons
  • a drop in productivity or work quality
  • verbalizing a sense of worthlessness, pessimism, or hopelessness
  • poor concentration or memory — they seem to have brain fog
  • difficulty making decisions
  • signs of substances misuse
  • seeming irritable or aggressive with coworkers, customers, or clients
  • fatigue or low energy — they seem tired all the time
  • weight loss or gain
  • expressing physical pain with no known cause
  • slow speech and body movements
  • talking about death or suicidal thoughts

Employee depression and a poor work environment is a two-way street.

For instance, an employee who’s experiencing depression may have a hard time performing their job. Their low mood could also impact the overall work environment. On the other hand, a poor working environment — such as one with long hours, low recognition, or bullying — can lead to workplace depression.

A 2010 study found that depression symptoms in employees were associated with poor work performance and with absenteeism. Work stressors were also related to depression symptoms.

Depression in the workplace can lead to a variety of negative results for a business, including the following:

  • high employee turnover
  • poor productivity
  • high absenteeism
  • low engagement
  • poor company morale

It’s imperative that organizations pay attention to their employees’ mental health, as employee well-being can significantly affect the health of the entire business.

A 2020 study found that full-time employees who worked for companies with a poor psychosocial workplace environment were more likely to experience depressive symptoms.

The study also found that long working hours (41-48 and 55+ hours per week) increased the risk of new major depression symptoms.

So how can employers make the workplace a better place to be? There are several things an employer can do to prioritize mental health in the workplace.

1. Be a leader with empathy

One of the most effective actions an employer can take is to display meaningful empathy on a regular basis.

This doesn’t mean you’re being a “push-over” or a boss who lacks leadership skills. It’s actually quite the opposite. A strong and decisive leader is one who has empathy.

It’s important that your employees feel like you’re a leader who is rooting for their success rather than someone who will punish them for having problems.

For instance, if an employee is having trouble with a sick child, you can work with them to come up with a more flexible schedule. Or if a worker is suddenly asking for more time off or is lacking in productivity, consider asking them if everything is OK.

This can help open the doors for more meaningful communication and the employee will feel heard.

For more information on encouraging empathy in the workplace, check out this article: How to Encourage Leadership to Create a More Empathetic Workplace.

2. Acknowledge and reward employees for good work

Burnout can happen very quickly when a person works hard but is rarely recognized or rewarded for their contribution.

While this can mean bonuses, a salary increase, or a promotion (which are great incentives), symbolic awards such as a thank you, a certificate, or public recognition can also have a significant impact on employee morale.

A 2021 study looked at the impact of sending social workers personalized letters of appreciation to their home addresses. Half of the social workers were randomly assigned to receive letters from their direct managers. The others did not receive a letter.

The findings show that 1 month later, those who had received a letter reported feeling more valued, more recognized, and more motivated than the workers who didn’t receive a letter.

3. Encourage a healthy lifestyle

A poor diet, lack of exercise, and high stress levels may contribute to depression. Giving your employees incentives to stay healthy can help promote good mental health and energy levels. This will pay off in terms of productivity and company morale.

Consider implementing the following health incentives (as practical or possible for your business):

  • Offer health insurance.
  • Bring in a mindfulness meditation expert to teach the basics. Consider starting a weekly group class.
  • Subsidize a gym membership. Offer incentives to join or create a time to go together.
  • Offer healthy snacks instead of donuts or a vending machine with junk food.
  • Pay attention to the number of hours your employees work. Be careful not to overwork or understaff.
  • Give opportunities for workers to get to know each other. Eat lunch together or organize a fun event once a month.

4. Offer worker autonomy

Be careful not to hover and micromanage your employees. This will almost certainly backfire and reduce employee morale.

The research on this topic is very clear.

A 2017 study found that workers believe micromanagement has a negative impact on their mental health, confidence, and employee depression.

And, a 2020 study found that increased perceived autonomy significantly improved individual and group productivity, with positive effects on mood.

If it’s practical for your business, consider taking it a step further and offer your employees an option to work from home.

As a general rule, controlling managers create a negative company atmosphere that prevents workers from reaching their maximum potential. Trust your employees to do their jobs.

5. Create a safe atmosphere

Bullying doesn’t just exist in middle school. In fact, many workplaces have a problem with cliques and bullying. Very few circumstances will decrease an employee’s mental health like coming to work every day and fearing one’s coworkers.

A study conducted in Malaysia found that 14% of workers had been bullied at least once at work, and 3.7% reported it as a common occurrence. The findings show that psychological distress was significantly higher among those who had been bullied compared to those who hadn’t.

Bullying can happen to workers regardless of their income. The study found that although low individual income was associated with greater psychological distress, higher-income employees were actually more likely to experience workplace bullying.

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and other mental health disorders are protected against discrimination at work. This includes privacy rights and a legal right to receive reasonable accommodations to help with job performance.

Can you dismiss an employee with depression?

It’s illegal for an employer to discriminate against a worker solely because of their mental health condition. This involves firing, rejecting the employee for a job promotion, or forcing a leave.

At the same time, an employer is not required to hire or keep a worker who cannot perform their job or who poses a “direct threat” to the safety of themselves or others.

However, to prove this, the employer must present objective evidence rather than rely on stereotypes about the mental health condition.

Whether you’re an employer or an employee, cultivating a safe and enjoyable work atmosphere should be a top priority.

A safe, supportive, and rewarding work atmosphere leads to productive and happy employees who can reach their full potential.

If you’re looking for tips on coping with depression at work and at home, consider reading these articles: