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depression

Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof. Your previously decisive teamleader can’t seem to make the simplest decision. Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat. Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects. These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do? On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee. Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager have to deal with it? The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager: Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t. Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed. Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.” However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted. As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step: Recognizing how Depression Impacts Work

Most managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can. What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee. The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.
Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose. They are there to talk about work performance and behavior. They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. 1. Start with your concern for the employee. “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
    2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors. “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
    3. Acknowledge the change. “This isn’t like you. You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
    4. Offer them an olive branch. “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
    5. Be prepared to set limits. For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
    6. Refer to an E.A.P. Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
    7. Reinforce your concern. ” I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.”
    8. Reinforce the need to improve performance. “However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.”

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole. Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee. With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around. In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others. At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.

 

One of my first therapy clients killed herself. The week before, she’d been sitting in my office wearing red lipstick and orange bauble earrings, talking excitedly about flying out of state to see her newborn grand baby for the first time. I spent weeks listening to the tape of our therapy session and trying to figure out what I’d missed. I still don’t know. What I do know is that, more than twenty years later, it still hurts to think about it.

On-the-Job Hazards

We psychologists know the specter of suicide is ever-present in our profession. I don’t think the same can be said for sales managers or accountants or oil refinery workers. And yet, in 2010, 270 workplaces came face to face with a coworker, manager or subordinate who’d ended his or her life while at work.

This doesn’t mean it was because of work; workplace suicides may or may not have been motivated by work-related issues. On-the-job suicides are defined by the location of the decedent when he or she was killed. If the fatal injury took place at the decedent’s place of employment, then it is considered a workplace suicide. And, regardless of what “caused” the suicide, the impact on the workplace can be traumatic. In this article, we’ll take a look at how to handle threats of suicide; in part 2, we’ll look at what to do after an attempt.

If I’m Fired, I’ll Kill Myself

Consider this scenario: You have an employee who, after months of counseling and coaching, was finally fired for tardiness and a poor work performance. When word gets back to his department, several of his former coworkers come to you and say that this employee told them that he would kill himself if he were terminated. By the time you find this out, the employee has packed up his stuff and left the building. Now what?

Was this threat manipulative? Definitely. Emotional blackmail? Probably. Do you have any legal obligation to intervene further? I’m not an attorney but my bet would be – probably not. Last question; how would you feel if he followed through?

As an HR professional, there are times when it is tough to balance the need to protect yourself legally while acting with compassion. In other words, there’s what you have to do and there’s what you should do. Here are some options:

1. See if one of your current employees (former co-worker of his) would check in with him (by telephone; not by visit) to see how things are going. If, during the conversation, it seems as if he’s still “at risk,”contact your local crisis line people, EAP or social services staff to see what assistance they might be able to provide him. If the former employee seems truly disturbed and continues to threaten suicide, consider calling the police and report the situation.

2. If you offer an EAP for employees, make it available to him. While you might not normally do this for most terminated employees, you have nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, in at least making the offer.

3. Heighten security in your own facility. Some suicidal employees decide to take others with them into the afterlife; don’t give him a chance to do that at your office.

I’ve Been Thinking About It

Scenario #2: You have an employee on one of your night shifts who has told you that she is currently seeing a therapist for depression. Recently, she told her shift supervisor that she is suicidal and is afraid to be by herself or around any sharp objects. She has also been moody and unpredictable with her coworkers and will cry uncontrollably for no reason. Now you find out her supervisor has been spending long periods of time talking to her one on one to calm her down when this happens. This is very disruptive, but you’re not sure what to do.

First of all, if she has stated she is suicidal, respect those statements and take them seriously. Meet with her, tell her what you’ve been told (that it’s come to your attention that she has mentioned thoughts of suicide to her supervisor) and ask her about it directly and give her time to explain.

If she admits that she is suicidal (or even that she’s seriously depressed), get her commitment to either call her therapist or your EAP – and have her do so before she leaves your office (giving her some privacy). If she refuses and you believe she’s at risk, let her know you will need to contact 911 or the police to insure her safety. Also, compassionately but firmly let her know that she can’t be at work until she gets her issues resolved because it is clear that she is currently unable to do the essential functions of her position.

In addition, contact your legal to deal about any return-to-work concerns, privacy worries, or liability issues (aware she was suicidal and not doing anything about it).

The Bottom Line

As HR professionals, a suicidal employee can stir up all kinds of feelings – fear, anger, concern. It’s easy to act on these feelings, by either distancing ourselves from the source (let’s fire him for making threats), judging (how manipulative! If he really wanted to do it, he wouldn’t have said anything) or playing savior (I can save him if I listen enough, watch him carefully, etc.) However, what’s best for the distressed employee is also best for us – get him/her to the help s/he needs while making sure the office is safe for everyone.

Your most gregarious employee suddenly becomes withdrawn and aloof. Your previously decisive team leader can’t seem to make the simplest decision. Your easygoing coworker starts arguing with coworkers and takes offense at the drop of a hat. Your most dependable employee shows up late, calls in sick, and doesn’t finish projects. These are some of the symptoms of depression in the workplace.

So what’s a manager to do? On one hand, production must continue, yet the compassionate manager should also be concerned for the well-being of the employee. Performance issues have to be dealt with and yet the employee’s previously stellar record – or obvious emotional pain – tempts the manager to just pick up the slack until the employee gets back on his or her feet.

The scenario of the depressed employee often presents a dilemma for his/her manager. So why does the manager haveto deal with it? The employee is a grown-up; why doesn’t s/he come to the manager first?

Note to Manager: Don’t Wait for Me to Come to You

The odds are, s/he won’t. Most depressed employees would rather eat dirt than admit to their managers that they’re depressed. Part of this is because of the shame many depression sufferers feel about what they feel is their “weakness.” However, a large part of their silence is due to the stigma many people continue to experience around mental illness.

For example, in an online survey of 1,129 workers conducted by the American Psychiatric Association of 1,129 workers, a high percentage believed that seeking help for particular psychological problems – such as drug addiction (76%), alcoholism (73%) and depression (62%) – would not be as accepted. As I mentioned in another article I wrote, for every story I’ve heard about a supportive manager or caring HR professional, I’ve heard ten from employees who felt their disclosure led to being teased, overly scrutinized, or discriminated against.

The First Step: Recognizing how Depression Impacts WorkMost managers have some employees they’d like to clone and some they’d like to clobber. And, certainly, a slacker can become depressed just as a superstar can. What’s noticeable about depression, though, is the change in the employee. The good employee’s performance declines while the marginal employee gets worse.Here’s what that change in performance may look like:

  • Unfinished projects
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Indecisiveness
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in work or socializing with colleagues
  • Seems tired/fatigued

What to Say to a Depressed Employee

Managers are not there to talk about medical problems, counsel, or diagnose. They are there to talk about work performance and behavior. They are also there to care about their employees’ wellbeing. When talking to a potentially depressed employee, here are some ways to do both:

  1. Start with your concern for the employee. “Sandy, I’m concerned about you.”
  2. Focus your comments on observable behaviors. “You’ve been late to work four times in the past two weeks and your reports have had twice as many errors.”
  3. Acknowledge the change. “This isn’t like you. You’re normally the first in to work and the last person in the department to make mistakes.”
  4. Offer them an olive branch. “I don’t know if things in your personal life are affecting you, but if they are we have a confidential employee assistance plan that might be able to help.”
  5. Be prepared to set limits. For instance, if the employee mentions marital discord, problems with a child, financial problems, and so forth, the manager should be empathic but should limit the conversation.
  6. Refer to an E.A.P. Offer the employee the telephone number for the employee assistance program or suggest that it would serve the employee well to consider outside professional counseling through health care benefits, a community clinic, an employee assistance plan, or even through pastoral counseling.
  7. Reinforce your concern. I’m very invested in helping you get back on track.
  8. Reinforce the need to improve performance. However, whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.

The Bottom Line

Clinical depression has been described as a black dog, a suffocating blanket, and an endless, dark hole. Untreated, it can sap the energy and motivation out of the most productive employee. With the right help, it can be managed, overcome, or worked around. In fact, for some people, coping with depression has given them some gifts that might now have otherwise received – such as a greater perspective and empathy for others. At least, that’s what one lifelong depression sufferer you may know said – Abraham Lincoln.