Dealing with Depression at Work

By Pat Matuszak

“Hey, Delores,” I called out from the elevator and waved to our senior executive’s assistant. “You’re back. Feeling better?”

Depressed woman at workDelores was an important part of our team, and her skills were sorely missed in our busy office when she was out for even a day. She gave me a glum look and shook her head. “No, I’m not feeling better, but I couldn’t afford to take any more time off.” She looked around the hallway then whispered, “I’m seeing a therapist. They’re trying to get me on the right meds for depression.”

“I’m sorry. I thought you said it was just sinus or allergies. What’s wrong?”

“It’s a diagnosis I’ve had for years, but they can’t seem to get my prescription right. Lately, I’ve felt like I can’t get out of bed or make decisions or remember details. It feels like I just don’t have the energy to live anymore.” Her words were frightening. It sounded like she could be having suicidal thoughts.1 “I didn’t tell them about my depression when I took this job, or they’d never have hired me. I thought I had it under control, and I really needed the work.”

Selfishly, I projected how this was going to affect the team. She coordinated the department office with no backup help and managed our senior exec’s schedule. When she was gone, it left a huge gap in our process. I couldn’t imagine how the exec or the HR department would take this news, but I knew that was first base.

Surely there must be some federal mandate to protect Delores’ job if she’d been diagnosed with a disabling condition. And why should it be easier for her to suggest she had a chronic sinus condition than a chronic mental health condition?

Since statistics say one in five people experience a mental health issue in the US, business leadership and human resource staff usually go through special training to relate to this issue.2 Most modern corporations have a plan in place for dealing with depression, which is the third most common workplace issue behind relational problems and stress.3

If you suffer from depression, you may still not want your employer to know. It’s a personal decision, and no answer is correct for everyone. You may be able to schedule therapy sessions after hours or delegate some of your workload without much negotiation.

However, if your illness affects your ability to get your tasks done or you’re too exhausted to work, it’d be beneficial to let your employer know so they don’t think you’re taking personal days without a medical reason. If you decide it’s best to disclose your depression, two preliminary tips from the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) can help you and your employer face it together.

  1. The Americans with Disabilities Act forbids businesses with more than 15 employees from discriminating against staff with mental or physical health issues. It requires “accommodation” or reasonable arrangements to be made in the workplace so employees with special needs can be hired and continue working.4 If you decide it’s best to disclose that you’re being treated for depression at a job interview, the hiring manager should be able to tell you what measures they have in place to meet your needs, just as would be the case if you had a physical health issue.
  2. If you let the interviewer know you will need time off for therapy or to take care of your mental health, you may find that the company you’re interviewing with has certain jobs that focus on individual skills, deadlines or productivity and don’t require full-time attendance on-site. The hiring manager may suggest a job on a large team with backup members or one where you would be allowed to work from home.

Groups like JAN educate and legislate for Americans with disabilities of all kinds. Because having a job and being successful at it increases the self-esteem of those with depression, this work is extremely important. With 14.8 million American adults diagnosed with depression, there’s a good possibility that any employee could develop depression during their tenure.5

If you’re one of those millions, here are some ideas you can keep in mind when discussing the issue with your employer:

When you talk, you may want to remind your employer that it lowers ROI for companies to train staff and then let them go because they develop a need for mental health accommodation. It also narrows the group of talented, eligible workers available to them if they ignore such a large portion of the population that has mental health needs. (Remember, it’s an issue for one in five people.2)  Accommodations can be made part of the company culture, just like they are for employees who care for elderly parents, have children or develop a chronic physical health condition.6

Give your employer an idea of the practical kinds of accommodation the company could make to keep an employee who is a valuable asset. It may put your employer at ease to know there are specific things they can do and that your request is practical and measurable. You may find ideas that would de-stress your work day experience in the following list from JAN.5

Some changes your workplace could make to alleviate stress:

  • Allow a support animal on-site.
  • Permit phone calls to therapists during work hours.
  • Lighten responsibilities to include only essential functions during times of stress.
  • Hold seminars to teach stress management techniques.
  • Provide confidential counseling or employee assistance programs (EAP).

Some changes your workplace could make to help you fight fatigue:

  • Create a responsive work environment with flexible scheduling and work-from-home opportunities.
  • Emphasize goal-oriented work rather than time-clock-regulated work.
  • Reduce physical exertion in job requirements.
  • Install ergonomic workstations.

 

Delores’ story had a happy ending for her whole family and for the company. Various members of the team stepped up to help cover her activities so she could take time off when needed. Assistants from other teams set up a call-forwarding system that was useful to everyone. Her supervisor helped her find a safer and more comfortable place to live, and team members helped her move and make repairs.

Stepping in to support her also gave the company an opportunity to grow together as a community. The atmosphere in the office became more open and others were encouraged to share their struggles. In the long run, everyone benefited from becoming involved in their colleague’s recovery and removing the stigma from this mental health need in the workplace.


Sources

1Depression in the Workplace.” Center for Workplace Mental Health, Accessed November 30, 2017.

2Disability Employment Policy Resources by Topic: Mental Health.” United States Department of Labor, Office of Disability Employment Policy, Accessed November 30, 2017.

3Depression in the Workplace.” Mental Health America, 2017.

4 Harding, Anne. “Depression in the workplace: don’t ask, don’t tell?CNN, September 20, 2010.

5 Loy, Beth, and Melanie Whetzel. “Accommodation and Compliance Series: Employees with Mental Health Impairments.” Job Accommodation Network, October 22, 2015.

6 Leonard, Bill. “Survey: 23 Percent of Workers Diagnosed with Depression.” Society for Human Resources Management, November 24, 2014.

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