Employers sometimes have concerns about a specific employee and whether the employee’s poor health might be affecting their performance and ability to do their job. But employers should also look to their employees’ mental health and wellness, as this can have a bigger impact on job performance than physical health concerns.

Depression on the job is often misinterpreted as a bad attitude or poor work ethic. You won’t change it with a reprimand or a pep talk. You may, however, be able to put your worker at ease by showing your awareness of the problem. First, you must be able to recognize it.

If an employee has recently suffered the death or departure of a family member or close friend, the grieving process and accompanying sadness is natural. It will take time and perhaps counseling for the individual to recover previous working habits and disposition. On the other hand, if no such loss or other traumatic event can be linked to an employee’s apparent depression, the cause may be more complicated. It could be physiologically based (and a long-term condition), requiring medication or some other treatment plan.

Regardless of the cause, keep in mind that whatever problems you may be experiencing from someone’s depression, their frustration with it is far more extreme. And the only control they have over it is to seek professional help.

How Depression May Be Evident in Employees

Just as managers should be aware of any physical ailment that may hinder an employee’s work, so should they be aware of an employee’s mental health. Mental illness often goes unrecognized because it’s not so easy to spot and it’s considered a private matter for most people.

One in 20 Americans currently suffer from depression severe enough to require medical treatment. If you suspect that an employee may be suffering from depression, consult the following list of symptoms. If these characteristics persist for a number of weeks, a thorough diagnosis may be necessary:

  • Decreased productivity; missed deadlines; sloppy work
  • Morale problems or a change in disposition
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Safety problems or accidents
  • Absenteeism or tardiness
  • Complaints of being tired all the time
  • Complaints of unexplained aches and pains
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

What if My Employee is Depressed?

Here are some things that you can do to be proactive in getting an 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 know that someone cares to listen to their life experience. In fact, when depressed people hear themselves relating their story, they can often gain a new perspective on the situation, and sometimes they even realize 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.