Dave Clemens: The best way to talk to employees with depression

wellbeing-badgeIf your organisation has, say, 100 employees, statistics indicate you’ll have about seven who suffer from depressive disorders. And if your organization is like most, the majority of your employees – including managers – have no clear idea of how to talk about depression to colleagues who are clinically depressed.

Now, not every depressed person discloses his or her condition to employers or co-workers. There’s still enough of a stigma around depression to deter a lot of people from self-revelation. 

But if you are aware that an employee has this particular mental health problem, it helps to know some appropriate phrases you can use when talking to them.

Helpful things to say

Here is a list of things that HR, line managers – and even co-workers – can say that will facilitate conversations with the depressed and avoid damaging their already fragile morale. Using these formulations will also ease any discussions you may need to have about job accommodations under disability laws:

  1. “You matter.” A clinically depressed person will often harbor major doubts about his or her self-worth.
  2. “I/we recognize this is a real problem.” Depression may make sufferers feel they’re “going crazy,” especially if they haven’t been medically diagnosed yet. That feeling just compounds the problem.
  3. “I/we will do my/our best to understand.” Note that you’re not saying, “I understand.” Someone who doesn’t suffer from depression may not in fact understand, and even if you do, your experience may be different from that of the employee. But the empathy inherent in “trying to understand” helps the person feel they’re being heard.
  4. “There is hope.” The depressed person desperately needs reassurance that he or she can survive the condition. They may not be able to summon up much optimism themselves, but a colleague or manager’s heartfelt statement of hope can make a big difference.
  5. “Let us help.” Unlike #1-#4, this is something that should be said only by managers or HR. Any help offered by rank-and-file employees is likely to be amateurish and off-point. But as an organization, you may have resources – an Employee Assistance Program, psychiatric referrals, job accommodation – that will benefit the depressed person.

The no-nos

It’s also important to avoid saying certain things to employees with depression. Among these unhelpful phrases:

  • Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
  • Depression is only a state of mind.
  • Try not to be so depressed.
  • You need to want to get better.
  • I know how you feel. I was pretty depressed myself when (insert some unpleasant experience).
  • It’s not always about you.

Telling people such things doesn’t do a thing to help them, and may make them sorry they ever disclosed their condition.

Evaluating their performance

To be sure, choosing sensitive ways to speak to employees with depression doesn’t mean you can’t critique their performance or behavior. If it looks as if depression is causing somebody to fail on the job – or they’re sapping the morale of co-workers with their gloom – the person’s manager needs to intervene.

Don’t start that conversation by referencing depression, however. Because depression may qualify as a disability under federal or state disability law, you can get into trouble by assuming an employee has the condition – or, if they’ve told you they do, by assuming it’s their depression that is causing the problems.

Instead, describe the behavioral or performance deficiencies at issue, and ask what they think is going on. The manager’s side of that conversation might sound something like this: “You’ve had a good record of meeting project deadlines most of the time you’ve been with us. I’ve always appreciated that. But in the last six months, I’ve noticed that you missed due dates on four occasions. Is there something happening with you that is getting in the way of meeting deadlines?”

If they say depression is indeed affecting their work, it’s time to refer them to a professional (per Point #5 above) and/or to discuss possible work accommodations that might help them behave or perform better.

If, however, a person with depression continues to fail even after the appropriate managerial intervention(s), you’re entitled to put them on the same kind of performance plan – or impose the same level of discipline – that you would apply to a non-depressed employee with similar deficiencies.

A supportive environment

Depression isn’t like a broken arm or a case of the flu. It may take the person years to get better, and there’s not necessarily a “cure.” For some sufferers, managing their depression is the best they can hope for. 

As the employer of a person with such a condition, you can’t fix their depression. But you can help ensure that the organizational environment is as supportive of them as possible. Responding to them in a helpful way – and teaching their colleagues how to do so – is a big part of that. 

Based in part on an article in Health magazine at www.health.com

Dave Clemens is a senior writer for Rapid Learning Institute and writes The HR Café Blog. His work has appeared in The Associated Press, World Press Review, and in several human resources, employment law, and business newsletters. You can connect with Dave via Twitter @TheHRCafe.

3 Comments - Write a Comment

  1. Very important article. Thanks for sharing with us. It is very important to know how to talk with a depressed person. You have to know the correct words at the …correct time as to help the person. Unfortunately these days we see more and more people suffering from depression and really need to help them.

  2. Wish I could send this out to all our managers

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