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Five Strategies for Dealing with Workplace Depression

Feb. 3, 2009
You’ve likely seen the symptoms in some of your co-workers and staff: decreased productivity, irritability, absenteeism, low energy, withdrawal and possibly even anger and anxiety. While these could be the telltale signs of a lazy, bored or unmotivated employee, they could also indicate something more serious – a depressed employee.

Although workplace depression may seem like a topic to be avoided at all costs (after all, personal problems don’t belong at work, right?) the facts are startling. Depression affects more than 19 million American adults and costs companies $12 billion in lost work and $11 billion in decreased productivity. And since 80 percent of people suffering from depression can be helped and recover, it is definitely worth an employer or manager’s time to help a depressed employee.

In fact, by addressing depression at work, companies can increase the bottom line and decrease many everyday problems, such as tardiness, co-worker conflict, customer complaints and poor quality of work, just to name a few. The key is to get past the perception that depression is only a “personal” problem that should be ignored at work.

What exactly is depression? Depression is a person’s reaction to an event or experience that interferes with healthy functioning. It involves body, mind and spirit – feelings, thoughts and behaviors – and may be one time or recurrent. Sometimes it comes in a manic-depression with both high and low swings. Ultimately, depression occurs when the person is experiencing life changes that are difficult to handle or that have no perceived resolution.

If you notice that certain employees seem to have “checked out” at the office, realize that depression may be to blame. Use the following suggestions for being proactive and helping your employees through this time.

1. Learn about and educate your staff about depression.

As an employer or manager, one of your top priorities is caring for your employees. Therefore, empower your staff so they understand and can recognize depression. One initial step is to create a simple brochure about workplace depression and hand it out to each staff member. If creating a brochure seems too daunting of a task for you, find an existing brochure from a local depression support group and customize it to your company.

To take the message a step further, bring in a speaker or consultant to teach your staff about depression and how to deal with it. Remember, all employees need to know about this topic, not just management. In many companies, management does not have daily in-depth contact with every employee. That’s why you want all employees to be able to recognize the signs so they can bring it to management’s attention.

2. Set up resources for those suffering with depression.

Resources include once-a-year depression screenings, telephone contacts to support those struggling with depression, referrals to help (EAP, counseling/psychotherapy, human resources, etc.), or even just being available to those who need to talk. While larger companies might want to invest in written assessments, even smaller companies can be proactive by providing simple human contact that says, “Hey, you look a little down. Let’s talk. I’m here for you. Can I help you get to counseling?” Small compassionate gestures can go a long way toward helping someone deal with depression.

3. Talk to your staff early, but don’t diagnose.

Remember that you’re an employer, not a psychologist. You’re not trained to diagnose, nor should you. It’s your job to meet the needs of the business by helping your people become better employees for the business. With that said, you can be supportive and concerned by saying things like: “I am concerned that recently you’ve been late to work… that you aren’t meeting your performance objectives... that you seem depressed. I would like to help you get back on track.”

Realize, too, that there’s a lot of help available for employers. You can call a counseling center or psychotherapist and run things by them. You can say, “Here’s what’s going on with one of my employees. Does this sound like something I need to address or refer out?” Develop that kind of relationship with someone or some organization in your area that can offer you support so you can take that first step to dealing with workplace depression.

4. Create good working conditions by using ecotherapy techniques.

Ecotherapy is well researched and proven to work because humans are part of nature. Things that contribute to creating a healthy work environment include:

  • Live plants – Research indicates that the color of green and the fresh oxygen plants give help us in many ways, including raising our alpha brainwaves.
  • Animals – Research says that even something as simple as fish reduces stress and improves mood. Watching fish swim relaxes the brain and gives people a lift.
  • Full spectrum light bulbs – Lighting that mimics natural sunlight lifts our mood and helps the body make the minerals and vitamins we need to feel well, such as Vitamin D, which combats depression and increases our energy level.
  • Personalized workspace – Cubicles often reinforce isolation and depression. The more personal items a person brings to the office, the less depressed he or she will be.
  • Connections to the natural world – Allow for walks in a park, a wooded area or anyplace outdoors so people can refresh and reconnect with the world.
  • Healthy food availability – If your company has a cafeteria or even a vending machine, make sure there are healthy food options available. Nutritious foods are essential for energy, mental functioning, and overall health.

5. Be prepared to act quickly if necessary.

Be aware that depression, if it has lasted long enough and stems from past traumas, may become life threatening. Therefore, be ready to move immediately: take the person to the hospital, call the employee’s family or doctor, contact the police, etc. Do not hesitate if there is even the slightest chance of someone hurting him or herself (don’t worry…depressed people usually do not hurt someone else).

This doesn’t mean you have meddle into people’s personal lives; it’s about having your finger on the pulse of your workers, so to speak, and being aware of sudden changes and what’s going on. For example, if someone who seems depressed says to you, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you,” or “I may not see you next week,” those are hints that you need to act fast.

Most depressed people want help, they just don’t know how to ask for it or they are too tired or lethargic and don’t have the energy to get help on their own. So your taking the initiative to offer help will usually be readily accepted.

Be Proactive

In the end, not dealing with or ignoring workplace depression will negatively affect your company’s bottom line. You’ll view your employees as “frustrating” because they’ll miss work, be tardy, display poor problem solving skills and epitomize a host of other negative attributes.

But the workplace doesn’t have to be that way. Your staff can be motivated and productive – the kind of people who naturally attract clients and display high morale, thus resulting in increased profits. With so many companies wanting to find ways to boost productivity and realize a higher bottom line, dealing with workplace depression should be a priority for every employer.

Dr. Donna LaMar and co-founder Betsy Laney are psychologists who created The Farm, an educational, mental health and preventive program for youth, families and individuals. They help people learn and grow, as well as heal from stress, traumas, abuse, and neglect. Working with animals, plants and nature, LaMar and Laney provide a unique form of counseling to overcome life’s challenges. For more information on their work, visit www.LivingFarm.org or call, 231-924-2401.

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