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Resource Center / Mental Health

Depression at Work: Signs Employees Need Help

Watching an employee struggle due to depression at work is hard. Here’s how you can lend a helping hand.

The letter "J" for Justworks.
May 01, 20236 minutes

It should come as no surprise that failing to address mental health in the workplace comes with its costs. According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, depression in the workplace costs employers $44 billion each year in lost productivity.

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Besides the obvious monetary costs, unaddressed depression in the workplace can cause employee morale to suffer and makes your employees feel alone or isolated. Being personally engaged with your employees and showing support for their lives and interests outside the workplace can help make your company a great place to work.

Depression Symptoms to Watch For

If you’re worried about someone in your workplace exhibiting signs of depression, you may have noticed such symptoms as:

  • Loss of interest in previously pleasurable activities

  • Fatigue due to sleep problems

  • Eating changes

  • Anger and irritability

  • Expressing negative thoughts

  • Loss of confidence

However, asking your employee directly about the state of their mental health isn’t so simple. Below, we outline the actions you can take to create a happy, healthy, highly-functioning workplace for all your employees.

Addressing Depression at Work

As an Employer, Tread Carefully

In recent years, there’s been more talk of bringing the whole human to work. Practicing an empathy that acknowledges your people as whole individuals can bring a unique strength and loyalty to your work environment.

Despite that, it’s inadvisable to be too direct about your concerns for an employee’s mental health. Here’s why:

You’re Not a Mental Health Professional

Perhaps you see some of the signs — loss of confidence, anger and irritability, and deep circles under their eyes — and make assumptions about what’s going on at home with your employee. However, you likely don’t know the full story, and you’re not a licensed mental health professional. (And if you are, you know you shouldn’t diagnose someone who isn’t your patient.)

All told, you don’t know the full story, and making assumptions about an employee’s mental health is not only unfair to the employee, but may put them in a defensive position if you bring it up.

You May Be Violating the Employee’s Privacy

There are many legal pitfalls associated with health disclosures in the workplace. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it illegal to discriminate on the basis of an employee’s disability. In addition, HIPAA prevents employers from directly obtaining health information on employees from a healthcare provider, unless the employee gives direct authorization.

In certain circumstances, an employer may ask for a doctor's note verifying a temporary illness if the employee uses sick time — but that’s different than an employee volunteering specific confidential medical information. Generally, your employees’ medical conditions are private for a reason.

You May Open Your Company to Lawsuits

The bottom line: being privy to certain medical information about an employee could open you or your company up to lawsuits. If the employee is subject to adverse employment decisions due to discrimination based on their medical condition, your company could face large repercussions. It’s better to address the symptoms rather than the cause of a decline in mental health and find alternative ways to address the problem safely.

Related Article: Does My Business Need EPLI Insurance?

What You Can Do

Ask How They’re Doing

Managers should have regular one-on-one meetings with employees to catch up on their progress, take stock of short-term and long-term goals, and keep lines of communication open. It’s not uncommon to open a meeting by asking, “How is your week going?”

You can ask this question in the specific context of their work — not their home life. Or, “How is work on XYZ project progressing?” If your employee volunteers that they’re having a hard time at work or struggling in their personal life, that’s when you can ask if there are any particular steps at work you can take to help their week go more smoothly.

Refer Them to an HR Specialist

If your employee admits they’re having a hard time due to problems outside of work, it’s an opportunity to respond along the lines of, “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time, and the company wants to support you while maintaining your privacy. If there’s anything specific you’d like help with, Lori in HR could be a great resource.”

Referring someone to HR protects you from learning information that might put the company at risk, and leaves it in the hands of someone who is professionally equipped to provide resources and institutional support to the employee.

Offer Available Resources

If an employee expresses to you that they’re struggling with problems at home, it’s not advisable to ask for details. However, you can let them know of the benefits and resources available if needed. Those resources might include:

Let your employee know they can take advantage of these resources as needed, and that they can discuss their options in detail with an HR specialist.

Address Troubling Behaviors in Context

If your employee recently began showing up to work chronically late, missing deadlines, forgetting assignments, or snapping at coworkers, all these behaviors can be addressed directly and in context.

Here’s an easy formula for difficult discussions:

  • Bring up the specific behavior objectively

  • Offer why that behavior is causing a problem

  • Explain the potential business ramification of the behavior

  • Give your employee an opportunity to address the behavior

For example, you may say to them, “I noticed that you missed three out of the past five deadlines this week. [Objective behavior.] I mention it because it made it more difficult to complete our team’s project on time. [Why behavior is causing problem.] Missing the client deadline could cause us to lose the business. [Business case.] Is there a reason you had trouble completing the deadlines on time this week?” [Opportunity to address.]

Or, you may say something like, “I noticed that you raised your voice with Eleanor in the budget meeting this week. I mention it because it made the tenor of the meeting tense and unproductive. How can I help you have a more productive interaction with your colleague in the future?”

These conversations are never easy, but they’re the best way to address the behavior directly, without making assumptions about an employee’s clinical state of mental health at work.

Justworks Can Help

We know that watching out for your employees isn’t easy. Justworks offers access to high-quality benefits, payroll administration, and HR support to help you take care of your team. We also work with companies like Health Advocate to offer an Employee Assistance Program, which provides access to mental health services, medical bill savers, and more.