How to talk to a depressed coworker

How to talk to a depressed coworker

If you work outside the home, chances are you spend more time with your coworkers than you do with your own family. You’d definitely notice if one of your coworkers was depressed, right? Don’t be so sure. The stigma surrounding mental illness has decreased, but it is still alive and well, particularly in the workplace.

Mental illness on the job remains one of the most challenging issues Americans face and depression is the most prevalent disorder affecting workers today. Almost seven percent of the population in the United States had at least one depressive episode within the past year. Of these sufferers, 27% reported significant impairment in their work and home lives.

In addition to human suffering itself, depression is estimated to cause 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion.

So what can you do to help a coworker who may be suffering from depression? Is it best to talk to the person directly or go to your manager? Should you say anything at all?

Read on for helpful information, tips, and resources.

  1. Recognize the symptoms of depression

    Depression goes far beyond feeling sad. Common symptoms and warning signs of depression in the workplace include:

    • Withdrawal
    • Isolation
    • Decreased productivity
    • Irritability
    • Difficulty concentrating
    • Difficulty with memory
  2. Decide whether to broach the subject

    Chances are good that you work with someone who suffers from depression, but it’s not something most people want to advertise or even talk about. So how (and why) should you bring it up?

    Know your why

    First, be honest with yourself as to your purpose in talking with a depressed coworker. It’s important to consider your motivation before any conversation takes place. A decline in work performance or worry for their well-being could be valid reasons to have such a conversation. Satisfying your own curiosity is not.

    Consider your relationship with the coworker

    Do you talk to this person frequently? Are they forthcoming about their personal life? Do you feel comfortable with them and they with you? These are all questions well worth considering before bringing up concerns about a coworker’s mental health.

    Consider typical personality and work style

    Is your once bubbly coworker irritable and sad? Has your introverted but friendly coworker become noticeably withdrawn? Has the biggest go-getter in the office been having trouble meeting even the basic functions of their job? These could be signs of depression.

    Consider timing and location for the discussion

    If you decide to speak with your coworker, the conversation should definitely happen behind closed doors at a time of your coworker’s choosing. Even people who are very open about their struggles with mental health likely do not want to be confronted where someone could overhear. Respect their privacy and bring up the topic in a safe, private environment.

    If you are a manager, be sure to check into any potential legal issues before speaking to an employee. Your job is to provide feedback on work performance, so limit your comments to any concerns you have related to how the employee’s capabilities may have changed. When in doubt, consult a lawyer, your company’s Employee Assistance Program, or other appropriate resources.

  3. Know what to say to a depressed coworker

    How to offer support

    It’s best not to come straight out and ask someone if they are depressed. If they deny it, the door has slammed closed on any productive conversation. Instead, try saying something more subtle like, “I’ve noticed you seem more tired lately. Are you feeling OK?” and take your cue from their response.

    How to handle emotion

    Many people are uncomfortable talking about something as personal as their mental health and by bringing it up, you need to be prepared for responses varying from irritation and anger to withdrawal and tears. This doesn’t mean that you should shy away from the conversation, but if you are truly uncomfortable with the possibility of an emotional response, you are probably not the best person to speak with that coworker. You can either discreetly find someone who is, or simply offer information on your company’s Employee Assistance Program and leave it at that.

    Know when to listen

    Sometimes the best thing you can do is listen and say nothing. Resist the urge to offer advice and just be there as a friend and colleague.

  4. Know what not to say to a depressed coworker

    Avoid dismissive comments

    Avoid comments such as, “Just think more positively.” A depressed person does not need to hear this. It can reinforce negative feelings, make them feel like a failure, and truly, if it were that easy, depression would not be the serious mental illness it is.

    Know when you’re in over your head

    Depression can be a serious, debilitating illness and should never be taken lightly. You can offer support and listen, but ultimately, that is as much as you can give. There is no substitute for professional help, but it’s a good idea to know how and where to find it and offer resources if you feel comfortable doing so.

  5. Be aware of resources for professional help and further guidance

    Check into your company’s Employee Assistance Program. Many offer confidential screening, referrals, and even counseling to employees seeking help. It is important to note, however, that the employee must seek assistance for themself.

    The following organizations also offer helpful resources for depression and other mental health conditions:

    Depression is a prevalent mental illness, yet many people are still afraid to talk about it or ask for help. For many, simply knowing they are not alone and finding out where to go for help can be comforting. With the right assistance, depression can be managed, treated, and even overcome.

Disclaimer: Depression is a complex mental health disorder that often requires treatment by a medical professional. This article is not intended as medical advice.