How to Deal With a Depressed Coworker
The World Health Organisation (WHO), suggests that around 120 million people are affected by depression worldwide. Despite the fact that depression is quite common, there are still some taboos and stigma associated with it.
We tend to equate being depressed with mental illness and that can scare us to the point that we don’t wish to disclose how we feel. Some people see being depressed as failing in some way or being a weak person, furthering their hesitancy to share their feelings. The nature of depression itself is often self isolating and certainly when you are depressed you may feel no one would understand how you feel. It is not surprising therefore that many take a long time to seek help and sadly some simply do not seek help.
Despite feeling depressed, many people soldier on and continue to go to work. Work pays the bills, helps to keep us in a sense of normality and be seen to be functioning. Whilst we may think that no one can tell we are depressed at work, we may well be giving off some telltale signs such as:
- Being quieter than usual
- Looking more tired than usual
- Noticeable weight loss or gain
- Appearing more sensitive than usual, anxious or irritable
- Increasing avoidance of people and conversations
- Not concentrating so well, forgetful or disorganized
- Having difficulty meeting deadlines or multitasking
Of course, this person may have already told you they are depressed but if they haven’t you may feel the need to approach them in order to find out if they need support.
How Can You Approach a Depressed Coworker?
Approaching a coworker who you believe may be depressed is not an easy thing to do as you might be met with denial. At the same time, the opposite could be true and that person may feel relieved that someone cares enough to be interested and has desperately needed to talk. Here are some ways you can bring up the subject (obviously not in front of any other workers).
- I noticed you have not been your usual self recently, is everything OK?
- You have seemed rather down lately would you like to chat some time?
- You have seemed distant or different recently. Are you OK?
How to Support Your Depressed Coworker
Assuming your coworker has admitted they are rather down or depressed, you need to be able to show them the right kind of support. Here are some things that you can do or say.
Be a good listener
You will learn more about how you can help them by listening and not doing most of the talking. Allowing them to shed the burden of worry by talking about it can be so helpful. Gently encourage them to open up. Try to ascertain why they feel depressed and just how badly depressed they are. Don’t force anything and don’t be judgmental or assuming. Know when they want to stop talking too. Pushing for too much information, especially too quickly, may seem overpowering or even interfering. If you have suffered with depression or know someone who has, then make this known as this may make the coworker more comfortable in confiding in you.
Show them you care. Let them know that you are always around to chat and will support them as much as you are able to. Ask if there is anything you can do specifically by way of support. Perhaps you could even bring them a small gift into work and suggest having lunch or just a coffee together. It is little good asking about their depressed state and then disappearing. Let them know consistently that you are there for them. Offer them an arm around the shoulder if they feel weepy.
Sometimes the person doesn't know why they are depressed. Accept this totally. Be very patient, gentle and understanding. Imagine this person is you and how you would like someone to support you. Respect their right to privacy and if they seem distant at times despite talking, accept that too. Do not pass on any details of your conversation without prior consent of the depressed person. Just making it known that you are consistently there for them will be reassuring. Be understanding when they don’t want to talk. It can be a frustrating time when you are trying to help someone with depression so you must back off when you feel your frustration rising.
What NOT to say to someone who is depressed.
Be Encouraging - Offer Hope
Encouragement is important when dealing with a depressed coworker. Ask if they have sought any medical opinion or if they intend to. It can be very important to have the backing of a general doctor when a working person suffers with depression. Have they got support at home with family or friends? If you can get them to open up sufficiently you could try and find out of they are feeling suicidal at all. If they are, try and not seem too shocked but remind them how depression is something that one can recover from with time and with the right help. Don’t pester them for answers but do let them know that it’s OK to feel depressed; that it’s not uncommon (without making it sound like their problem is unimportant).
- SupportLine - Problems: Depression: Advice, support and information
Supportline offers confidential emotional telephone support in the UK for men, women, children and young adults.
Some may be mortified with the idea of their employer finding out they are depressed for fear of discrimination or even losing their job, but do remind them that they have rights with regards work and their depression, (remember to respect your coworkers privacy at all times). This of course requires your depressed coworker to confide in the management. In the UK, some companies even provide counseling services but most should at least accommodate for a state of moderate to severe depression. Perhaps the work load could be reduced for a while and if the time off work becomes quite lengthy, a staged back to work plan can be structured to take the pressure off a little.
If you get the impression that the coworker is holding back and is not forthcoming by way of talking, perhaps you could suggest a local helpline or forum that may be of support to them.
A doctor can write a sick note for some time off work of course and this is probably the best first option to encourage if it has not already happened. If the coworker refuses to see a doctor there is little you can do but periodically gently bring it up again as an option. A break, a holiday (they may have some holiday days owing to them) for a rest could be suggested.
Useful Reading for Depression at Work
Depression Diagnosis and Discrimination
Employment Rights as an Individual With a Disability
Human Resources: Depression in the Workplace
Looking After Yourself When Helping a Depressed Coworker
The final word should be on taking care of you whilst supporting a coworker who is depressed. Know your limits. Know how much time and effort you are prepared to give and stick to it. Don’t take too much on because as I mentioned it can be a frustrating business. Your colleague may seem a bit brighter after a chat only to return to work the following day looking just as depressed as ever. Lending an ear and some practical well timed suggestions should be your priority. Don’t promise to do something, and then let that person down as they will feel that rebuff tenfold.
You are not ultimately responsible for anyone's depression nor of their suicidal thoughts if they have them.