Depression isn't limited to a few. Over 300 million people, globally, suffer from it. This means it's quite likely that you know someone who is currently in its grasp, and it isn't pleasant. Left untreated, depression can literally be deadly. You don't want to let anyone suffer without help.

But, what can you do in an office setting? What should you do?  I spoke with psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist, Lori Whatley,  about the best things to do. Whatley shared some insights that you will find valuable.

When should you speak up and ask a coworker or employee if she needs help? Or should you?

Whatley starts out with a reminder that depression is an illness, just like cancer. We don't wait around to help someone who has cancer saying, "oh, she'll get better on her own." Of course, approaching a co-worker can be difficult, and many of us would opt to wait, but, she says "Waiting for the coworker to come to you would not be a good idea as it is understood that the earlier depression is addressed the better the treatment results and due to the stigma most people simply will not address this issue with a coworker. Likely, they will suffer in silence."

What do you say?

This, of course, is the difficult part. Knowing you should say something and actually saying it are two very different things. Whatley suggests the following ideas:

  • First, you will want to express your concern for the employee.
  • Direct your comments only to the behaviors that you can see. For instance, "I've noticed you are not completing your work on time and sometimes not at all." Acknowledging that change in behavior is helpful for example, "and it really is not like you to leave work unfinished as you are normally the first to finish assignments and then request more."
  • Next you will want to offer them help. Example: if there is something going on in your life that is causing you this issue we have a super employee assistance program where you may find confidential support.

Whatley advises that you have the information for your company EAP posted in the breakroom or other place where it is obvious and available. And offer to help an employee set up the support she needs. Making appointments when you're depressed can be overwhelming, so offer to help.

What are things you should not say?

Snap out of it! Whatley says, " Depression is the No. 1 health problem in most countries. It is real and requires treatment to recover. Snapping out of it is not an option. This is no time to be brave or try to manage this alone, asking for help takes courage but it is a necessity." 

What can you do to support an employee with depression?

Whatley emphasizes that you should encourage the person with depression to get help "as there is no reason to suffer from depression with excellent treatment available in most countries today as depression is at an epidemic level."

It's important that you see this as an illness and not a character flaw. She says, "depression is an illness that robs one from the meaning of life. Therefore it is important to help the depressed person see their value and importance to you and the company. Help to remove the stigma by helping the depressed one to understand that they did not DO anything to become depressed. Depression is an illness You are not more at fault for having depression that if you had, diabetes or cancer." 

What suggestions do you have for accommodating employees with depression?

Depression can be covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and so you may actually need to make accommodations legally. While the process should always be interactive--a dialogue between the employee and the company--Whatley had some suggestions:

"Reasonable accommodation can include things such as part-time work or job restructuring. Proper support for employees suffering from depression can decrease absenteeism and an increase in work performance which is a benefit to the workplace as well as the employer and employee."

What are other things we should know?

Whatley answered the question I should have asked originally: how can you tell when someone is depressed. She gave these symptoms:

  • decreased productivity
  • morale issues
  • lack of cooperation
  • safety problems and accidents
  • absenteeism
  • frequent complaints of being tired all of the time
  • complaints of unexplained aches and pain
  • alcohol and drug use

She added, "These symptoms should not be shrugged off as "nothing." Treatment is readily available through EAP and through this treatment 80 percent of the people dealing with depression can make significant improvements. Many symptoms can be removed in a matter of weeks. Seeking help is a sign of great wisdom."

While you can't force an employee to receive help, you certainly should offer. Keep Whatley's ideas in mind when you notice any of the above symptoms in your employees.