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Managing an employee who may be depressed: A step-by-step guide

Published by: LifeWorks,


Globally, more than 300 million people suffer from depression, the leading cause of disability, with many of these people also suffering from symptoms of anxiety. A recent WHO-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$ 1 trillion each year in lost productivity. 

There’s no doubt, depression is a widespread problem in the workplace, costing employers billions of dollars a year due to absenteeism and presenteeism. Absenteeism is the practice of regularly staying away from work or school without good reason, while presenteeism is the practice of being present at one’s place of work for more hours than is required, especially as a manifestation of insecurity about one’s job.

Steps you can take if you think an employee may be dealing with depression:

  • First, do not assume the problem will go away or get better on its own. Many employees are unaware they have depression. The sooner you act, the sooner your employee will be able to get help.
  • Meet privately with the employee if you see a change in behaviour, a decline in performance, or an altered pattern of interaction with the team.
  • Take the employee aside and talk in a place where others can’t hear you. Protect the employee’s privacy when you discuss your concerns. And be as diplomatic and specific as possible.
  • Listen carefully to the employee’s concerns.
  • Avoid being judgemental like, “Pull yourself together” or “Can’t you snap out of it?” This is exactly what a depressed person is unable to do, and suggesting it will make the person feel worse.
  • Don’t make assumptions or try to diagnose the problem. Your purpose as a manager is to recognize that something is wrong and to steer the employee to a helpful resource respectfully.
  • Let them know they are a valued member of the team. Encourage them to talk with someone or reach out to access some resources to help them start to feel better.
  • Keep the focus on performance. Give specific examples of how the problem is manifesting itself.

Ways to help

  1. Let the employee know there is a place to turn for help. Encourage the employee to contact his or her health care provider, or the organization’s EAP. Explain that the program is private and strictly confidential.
  2. Confidentiality is essential because many employees fear the stigma associated with depression in the workplace. With LifeWorks, you can offer a market-leading Employee Assistance Program that supports employees with 24/7 best-in-class counselling and well-being content, anytime, anywhere. 
  3. Explain that the program can provide counselling or advice about additional resources. Give the employee the telephone number of the program.
  4. Discuss the employee’s situation with your HR representative early in the process. Find out what forms of support you can provide.

“Depression tends to affect people in their prime working years and may last a
lifetime if untreated. More than 80 percent of people with clinical depression can
be successfully treated.”

Mental Health America

Following up

In managing an employee suffering from depression, you will want to show continuing support and understanding.

  • Continue to provide support to the employee without being intrusive.
  • Encourage the employee to stay with the treatment and follow the treatment plan.
  • Provide the employee with more direction if necessary.
  • Share positive feedback with the employee about their skills, talents, and capabilities.

Talk with your HR representative about ways to offer ongoing support to the employee. An employee
struggling with depression may need to have a flexible work schedule until things improve.

What happens if an employee needs more support than you can provide?

An employee who is suffering from depression may need more support than you alone can provide. Be aware that many people suffering from depression resist talking about it, especially at work where they may fear repercussions. They may fear losing their job or have concerns about confidentiality.

Reports show that up to 300,000 in the UK lose their jobs over mental health each year.


After years of campaigns and advocacy, mental health stigma may be lessening while awareness may be increasing, but still many people who are depressed are not getting treatment. They may not recognize their condition, or they may be afraid of the stigma that’s still attached to mental illness. An employee showing signs of depression may not follow up on your suggestion that they contact the EAP for support, or their performance may continue to suffer even if they seem to accept your encouragement and guidance.

500, 000 people in Canada miss work each week due to mental health concerns

Global News

If despite your support, an employee continues to perform at a lower level over time, you may have to address the performance issue according to your organization’s established practices. Consult your manager and HR for guidance on how to address the issue.


Make your employees feel loved