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What do I do if my coworker seems depressed?

What do I do if my coworker seems depressed?


Mental Health America recently published the following facts:

  • Depression is one of the top three workplace problems for employee assistance professionals, trailing slightly behind stress and family crisis.

  • 3% of short-term disability days are taken due to depressive disorders; in 76% of those cases, the employees taking the days are female.

  • Often, depressed employees will not seek treatment or assistance because they’re concerned about how it will their job; they’re also worried about confidentiality.

  • Most employees, if made aware of symptoms, will refer a depressed employee for help, with 64% respondents to an NMHA survey saying that they would refer an employee to an EAP professional.  

Unfortunately, depression has cost American employers tens of billions of dollars in absenteeism, lost productivity and direct treatment. Depression affects so many people in their prime working years.

But depression can be successfully treated, and with intervention and support, it doesn’t have to last a lifetime.

Hannah*, 28, says that when she began noticing symptoms of depression in one of her colleagues, she wasn’t sure what to do.

“Depression actually runs in our family, but this was a work colleague, and I feel like you can’t just say things to a coworker no matter how friendly you’ve been,” she admits. “But I also didn’t want to not intervene, in case my compassion and my attention could make any difference, no matter how small.”

Hannah’s right – no matter how awkward it may seem at first, there are ways to help while respecting the limitations of your professional relationship.

Reach out.

You may think a coworker has depression, but keep in mind life ebbs and flows all the time for everyone, and what looks like depression may just be a change of demeanor or behavior that’s temporary because of a recent sad event. That said, if you’re seeing noticeable, significant change, it’s a good thing to assess what’s happening – and then reach out.

This doesn’t mean attacking your coworker with questions like, “Are you depressed?” Doing so may cause them to brush you off, or they may be offended or insulted.

You can ask them, every day, how they are – this tells them, even if they don’t want to volunteer any information, that there’s someone there who’s willing and ready to listen. Some people don’t even realize they’re depressed, so they may not know there’s anything to talk about anyway. Still, the important thing is for you to make sure your colleague knows that someone’s in their corner, even if only just to listen.

Be mindful of how you approach them.

Please don’t “come at” a colleague and say something like, “Hey, do you want to talk about your depression?” or “I’m not sure if you know, but I think you may be depressed.”

Neither approach is likely to get you the kind of results you’re hoping for. They may be offended, or they may withdraw. They may become embarrassed, or they may feel upset.

Instead, just ask about them and their life, all while respecting your professional boundaries. Don’t be too intrusive or aggressive in your questions. Apply compassion and empathy and gentle friendship.

When it comes to talking with a colleague about their mental health, it’s best to be cautious – and to respect confidentiality. If you feel as though they may be depressed, it’s best to keep it to yourself (unless you truly believe they’re in danger, and in that case, speak with your HR department about how to move forward with possible intervention). Your colleague will not appreciate being gossiped about, so talking with other colleagues about how to help is not necessarily the best idea, even if you think you’re just gathering more support.

It's important to help your colleague know that whatever it is they’re going through, they’re not alone. They’re validated in however they’re feeling, and you’re there to talk to, if and when they need it.

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