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Web Exclusive: Conquering Depression in the Workplace

Depression affects morale, productivity and effectiveness, but you don't have to let it bring your workers down.

Lynette had a deep, embarrassing secret. She had been the star employee of the company. Everyone loved her. She was now a very capable manager. Even her divorce a couple of years ago hadn't seemed to affect her. Lynette was the one who always had a smile, a new idea and tireless dedication to her department.

But for the past few weeks, there was a growing change in Lynette. She was late for work, her attitude was negative and she was short-tempered. The quality of Lynette's work was slipping.

A close co-worker discovered Lynette's ex-husband had remarried, causing Lynette to fall into a deep depression, one that impacted the quality of her work and her relationships with coworkers.

This case of a depressed employee is very typical of how depression affects a company's productivity, morale and effectiveness. Life's challenges sometimes overwhelm employees who are already vulnerable for some pre-existing reason. People who are most vulnerable to having depression triggered by the typical stressors of life are those who derive an inordinate amount of their fulfillment in life from either:

  • Harmonious interpersonal relationships.
  • Obtaining a high amount of positive recognition for high achievements.

If anything goes wrong in a relationship for the first type, or if the second type falls short of his or her own high standards of achievement and recognition, depression can be triggered in an employee.

Managers should be aware that depression could be a factor when dealing with employees who have a sudden change in:

  • Personality
  • Attitude
  • Mood
  • Productivity
  • Efficiency
  • Absenteeism
  • Energy level
  • Personal appearance

If these signs show up, it is likely that you are dealing with the all-too-common problem of depression in the workplace. Of course, some of these can be indicative of other problems such as physiological disorders or chemical dependency. In any event, managers do need to intervene. It is important to find out what the problem is and what can be done to correct it.

Back on Track

Here are some things that you can do to be proactive in getting your 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 His or Her Story

Every depressed person has a story that he or she is longing to tell, and it is a huge relief to him or her to know that someone cares to listen. In fact, when a depressed person hears himself relating his story, he often gains a new perspective on the situation, and sometimes, even realizes a solution.

4. Provide a Solution for 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.

5. Offer Practical Assistance Within the Workplace

Maybe there are some ergonomic concerns that can be addressed, or maybe an employee needs a little temporary assistance with his or her 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.

About the author: Dr. Christopher Knippers is a psychologist and author in Rancho Mirage, Calif. An evaluation specialist for the Betty Ford Center, Knippers' expertise includes depression, addiction and self-esteem issues. He teaches classes in psychology, counseling and personality theories at Chapman University. In addition, Knippers is author of three books, including his forthcoming book, "Cultivating Confidence: Your Guide to a More Fulfilling Life." For more information on his books or work, contact him at (760) 408-9965 or by Email: [email protected]

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