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How to support a colleague or an employee with depression

Having conversations about mental health at work can feel really hard. If one of your colleagues or employees is experiencing depression, you might be worried about what to say or do. Do you want to offer your support but you’re concerned about getting it wrong? This is a completely normal reaction and it shows that you care.

Work is such a huge part of our lives. For most of us, it’s our only or main source of income - that’s pretty important! It can also be a part of our identity, a source of self-esteem, and where we go to get our adult social interaction.

Hand holding a cup of coffee while another person is holding their own hands together

It’s also where most of us want to present the very best version of ourselves. Unfortunately, there’s still a very real stigma around talking about our mental health. If a colleague is experiencing depression, they may have concerns about compromising their job or any future career opportunities, which can prevent them from speaking up.

This means that you’ll probably need to be the one to make the first move. However, they might also feel brave enough to approach you and start talking about their mental health spontaneously. In any case, starting that conversation can feel a bit scary but it doesn’t have to be awkward or difficult.

We’ve pulled together some tips that can help you to better support your colleagues and employees with depression, and show that you care.

Get to know about depression

Depression is pretty common, with 1 in 10 people likely to experience it during their lifetime. Chances are someone in your office will be struggling with depression at some point.

Get to know a few facts about depression and some of the warning signs. That way, you won’t be caught off guard and will feel more comfortable talking about it if the situation arises.

What exactly is depression?

Feeling a bit low or sad from time to time is something that happens to most people, especially if there are difficult things going on in our lives. Depression, on the other hand, is an ongoing mental health problem where low mood doesn’t go away or it keeps coming back and starts interfering with day-to-day life.

Depression can have a negative impact on how someone thinks, feels and behaves, and lead to emotional and physical health problems. It can also impact someone's ability to function at work.

Recognize the warning signs of depression

Signs that someone might be depressed at work can include:

  • Persistent low mood or sadness

  • Tiredness or a lack of motivation, interest and energy

  • A drop in productivity

  • Arriving late, looking disheveled or calling in sick

  • Communicating a sense of worthlessness, hopelessness or pessimism

  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things or making decisions

  • Changes in eating habits such as eating a lot more or not enough, or losing weight

  • Irritability, agitation or conflict

  • Isolating or withdrawing from others

  • Crying

  • Complaining about unexplained aches and pains

  • Signs of alcohol or substance misuse

Don’t feel you have to diagnose someone with depression – that’s not your job! It’s just really helpful to be aware of some of the warning signs, so you know when someone might need help.

Woman at her desk in a home office looking depressed and overwhelmed in front of her laptop

Give them the time and space to talk

If you would like to offer a colleague support, try to make sure that you give them the space and time to open up. Choose somewhere private and try to park anything that's going on for you.

Sometimes we can feel worried about saying the wrong thing or pressured to come up with some really helpful piece of advice. Instead of thinking about what you are going to say, try to focus on listening. This instantly removes the pressure to respond or to say “the right thing”.

Asking lots of open questions such as “how are you feeling?” or “what was that like for you?” can get the conversation going. It’s also really helpful to demonstrate empathy by saying things like “that sounds really hard” or “that must be exhausting”, letting someone know that it's ok to feel the way that they do.

You don’t need to have all the answers or be a mental health professional to offer a colleague support. All you need to do is offer them a space to feel accepted and understood. You can find other useful tips on how to have conversations about mental health at work here.

Offer more practical support

You might know that a colleague or employee is depressed, but you don’t know what that feels like for them. Each individual’s experience of depression is unique. Try not to assume what they might want or need. The best thing you can do is to talk to them and find out if there’s anything you can do to help.

If you’re their manager, you might want to start the conversation by expressing your concern and highlighting any changes in their behavior. For example, “I’ve noticed that you seem to be struggling. You haven’t been completing your work on time and that’s not like you; is everything ok?”. You can then find out what they need.

They might say that they would really value some time off, a more flexible work schedule, or a reduction in workload. If so, you can start thinking about how to make reasonable adjustments for them. However, they might equally say that they don't want any changes and really value the routine of work, the social contact and having something to get out of bed for. You just won’t know until you ask.

The same goes for if you are someone’s colleague, ask them if there is anything practical that you can do to help, like helping them prioritize their to-do list or covering the phone so they can take a break. The person with depression is generally the expert on their illness and what they need - all you need to do is make a genuine offer of help.

Make efforts to include your colleague

People with depression are more likely to experience feelings of worthlessness and feel isolated from others. By making an effort to include a colleague, you can let them know that they matter and help them feel connected to the people around them.

It doesn’t have to be anything big. No one wants a song and dance every time they step foot in the office. Simply saying “hi” and including them in the usual work and social gatherings can make all the difference.

If your colleague is on sick leave, you could send them a message and let them know you’re thinking about them. Don’t feel any pressure to say something to make them feel better. Just let them know that they are not forgotten and that others are thinking about them. It really can make all the difference. If they’re off for a while, keep sending them the odd message – you never know how much it might mean.

If you don’t get a response or your colleague declines any invitations, that’s ok. They might not feel up to speaking to anyone or joining in just yet. Just make sure they know the offer is still there when they feel ready.

Three colleagues chatting and laughing while working on their laptops at a shared table

What NOT to say

Any platitudes such as “look on the bright side” or telling someone to “snap out of it” is just not helpful. Depression can be a very serious illness and it’s not something you can just snap out of. Opening up about depression takes great courage, so try your best to be supportive and non-judgmental.

If you are feeling out of your depth and you don’t feel like you can offer a colleague support, that’s ok! You can let them know that you don’t feel you are the right person to help and signpost them to any support options in your workplace, their line manager, or recommend that they speak to their doctor.

Little things help

Supporting a colleague or an employee who is experiencing depression doesn’t have to be a big thing. Small but kind and thoughtful gestures will almost always be welcomed.

Here are some ideas to help a colleague with depression. You could:

  • Let your colleague know if they have done something well

  • Take the opportunity to highlight their strengths

  • Make yourself available for a chat

  • Let them know you’re there

  • Keep checking in with them

Using a commonsense approach and the skills you already have, you can get talking and help your colleague or employee feel more supported at work.

If your company is part of it, you can also signpost them to the TalkLife Workplace peer support community, where they can get anonymous support from like-minded people, any time of the day or night.

Learn more about TalkLife Workplace and get in touch with one of our friendly account managers here.


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