Depression at work: 9 tips to address the issue and support employee wellbeing

The World Health Organization estimates that 5% of the global adult population has depression, and cites it as the leading cause of disability. But Wysa’s latest research All Worked Up suggests depression at work may be a bigger problem than is being reported. Our survey found that the scale of the volume of positive screenings for depression and anxiety in Americaʼs workforce is substantially higher than expected. 2 in 5 (40%) employees that were surveyed, experience symptoms of anxiety or depression that could be clinically significant and warrant further investigation. The proportion of positive symptoms is a stark variation from other figures reported, indicating that workers are at heightened risk of psychological stress.

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The following symptoms can all be indicators of depression – sadness, lack of energy and motivation, anxiety, stress, irritability, difficulty sleeping, and not prioritizing self-care – all of which can have an impact on workplace activity and productivity. It can also be difficult for employees with depression to maintain relationships at work, and perform optimally at work. Symptoms of depression amongst employees cost employers in the USA between 17 billion USD to 44 billion USD, indicating the scale of the problem from an employer perspective. 

Depression results in around 200 million lost days of work each year in the US and 12 billion globally, through both absenteeism and presenteeism with a loss of productivity.

⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.

Risk factors of depression at work and the importance of early intervention

Workplaces do not necessarily cause depression. There may be external factors, such as family pressures, relationships, money worries or health concerns that can lead to low mood, and make a person less able to contribute fully to the workplace. 

At the same time, depression can still arise from work environments that are stressful and characterized by excessive workloads, unreasonable deadlines, presenteeism, and a lack of support. It can result in triggering depressive symptoms in an employee and an increased likelihood of work depression. 

Early intervention is critical as it can help reduce the impact of depression on an individual, and the workplace, and result in better outcomes. Early support for employee mental well-being also has strong economic benefits through enhanced productivity, reduced presenteeism, absenteeism, and turnover. Overall it benefits both the personal and professional life of an employee.

9 tips to address depression at work

1. Training for intervention and early warning signs

It’s essential that managers and team leaders have education and training to spot signs that someone is suffering from depression. In the UK the Mental Health First Aid course has a good reputation for offering support and resources for leaders and colleagues. Managers and employers should look out for warning signs such as changes in behavior, decreased productivity, increased absenteeism, and changes in social interaction and team relationships.

In Australia, it has been recommended that internet-delivered and mobile app-delivered interventions are implemented to manage mild-moderate depression in adults. 

2. Offer resources

Self help resources and employee assistance programs are essential to help employees with depression with their own care. Wysa offers over 150 self help activities and resources covering issues such as depression, anxiety, sleep, relationships, health and more, alongside virtual webinars and aggregated anonymous data at an organizational level so that HR teams can see what the biggest issues facing their employees are and identify ways to mitigate these. Wysa also offers text-based support by mental health professionals, for those who may be dealing with major depression or just need additional support.

Highly engaged Wysa users see a 31% reduction in their depressive symptoms, resulting in happier employees and a more productive workplace. The use of Wysa could save an organization of 50,000 employees 29 million USD a year. 

3. Talk about depression at work

Workplaces, where it’s normal to talk about mental health issues are generally healthier and happier. When people know they can speak up, be open and have access to resources they are less likely to be severely affected by depression as a direct result of the workplace. Make it normal to show an interest in well-being, without crossing boundaries, by asking questions such as ‘How are you?’ and expecting a genuine answer. 

Talking about depression at work can help individuals get the support they need to manage their condition. When started early it can prevent it from impacting their job performance and overall well-being and reduce the stigma. Have informative sessions that help people identify the symptoms of depression, and offer practical examples and ideas to support a colleague who may be suffering from depression or any other mental illness. Making people aware of signs and symptoms will help colleagues be better equipped to start a conversation and talk about depression at work.

4. Create a mental health employee resource group

An employee resource group (ERG) is a voluntary, employee-led initiative where group members come together to raise awareness and provide solutions to issues in the workplace. A mental health ERG, can help contribute towards personal and professional support as part of a broader wellness strategy.

To set up an ERG, companies need to assess the current situation, understand their employees’ needs and align them with the organizational objectives. ERGs can create psychological safety, reduce stigma, create cultural awareness, increase employee engagement, foster collaboration, and boost productivity. ERGs also offer support through tools such as well-being apps for additional support, and through active listening with empathy, respectful and thoughtful communication, and judgment-free conversations.

5. Have reasonable accommodations

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), employees with disabilities may request reasonable accommodations to perform their job duties. These accommodations may include adjustments to work schedules, remote working options, a quiet work environment, or the use of devices such as noise-canceling headphones.

A person must have a physical or mental condition that is deemed to substantially limit one or more major life activities, such as depression impacting work. 

6. Flexibility and work-life balance

Prioritizing work-life balance is essential. One of the biggest impacts that work life has on one’s health is stress and burnout caused by a toxic work environment, overworking, etc.

Flexible work arrangements, such as hybrid or remote working, can reduce commuting time and provide individuals with more control over their work hours. This can result in less stress and more autonomy, which can contribute to a positive work experience. Try to limit presenteeism. Make it normal to take breaks, go for a walk at lunchtime rather than sit at a desk, and finish at 5 pm rather than work late for presenteeism. 

Having the ability to have a day off or adjust work hours when needed can help individuals manage their well-being better. If someone is feeling depressed or experiencing symptoms of severe depression, they may need to take time off to attend therapy or see a doctor. Having the flexibility to do so can help them manage their condition and reduce the risk of it becoming more severe. Unfortunately, All Worked Up showed only 1 in 10 feel comfortable doing so.

7. Practice and encourage empathy at work

Empathy is essentially about being able to understand the feelings of others, and it is an essential skill in the workplace. When employees practice empathy, they are better able to communicate with their colleagues, resulting in better relationships, effective teamwork, and collaboration. Employees who feel understood and heard by their colleagues are more likely to be satisfied with their job and less likely to experience burnout.

Empathy helps employees to see a situation from another person’s perspective, which can lead to a more productive and less confrontational resolution of any conflict. And it can result in increased creativity and innovation by feeling more comfortable sharing their ideas and perspectives.

8. Create a psychologically safe work environment

A psychologically safe work environment is one where employees feel safe to speak up, share their opinions, and take risks without fear of negative consequences. When employees feel safe and supported in their work environment, they are less likely to be stressed and anxious. Whether it is work depression or depression stemming from their personal life, having a psychologically safe space can help in feeling more comfortable seeking support which can lead to earlier intervention and treatment. We know that when employees feel psychologically safe they feel connected and comfortable.

To create a psychologically safe work environment employers can promote open communication about difficult topics such as suicide and depression, build a culture of respect and inclusivity, and provide resources for mental health support. By prioritizing employees’ mental health and well-being, employers can create a workplace where employees feel valued, supported, and empowered to thrive.

Find out more about how Wysa can help you and your employees by checking it out today. 

Commonly asked questions

1. Can you dismiss a depressed employee?

Depression is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and employers cannot discriminate against someone with a mental health condition.  A similar code is in place in the UK, where mental health is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, where mental health conditions are considered a disability. Employers have a duty to provide reasonable accommodations so that employees can do their jobs in a way that does not negatively impact their mental health.

2. How can one manage an employee with mental health issues?

When managing employees with mental health issues it’s important to understand their unique situation. One thing that is often used within treatment plans is a WRAP – Wellness Recovery Action Plan. Proactive employers can use this simple yet powerful process,  asking employees to identify what makes them work at their best, what they need to facilitate this, what the signs are they are not doing well, and what support they need when they or others become aware of the signs that they may be suffering. 

Managers can offer support for employees who have difficulties, however, All Worked Up found that even when employees are struggling, they aren’t comfortable expressing the truth, due to stigma and embarrassment. Only 1 in 5 employees feel comfortable telling the truth and taking time off, and a shocking 59% would rather speak to an app like Wysa than their manager, and 74% would choose an app over their HR teams. We need to create psychologically safe workplaces where it’s normal to speak up and express any worries or concerns about personal mental health problems or workplace situations.

It is important to have an open and honest conversation with the employee about their condition and work, together to find accommodations that can help them perform their job duties. Accommodations may include flexible work hours, modified job duties, or additional support from colleagues or managers.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio 

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