Learning from tragedy–depression and mental health in the workplace

This past week, the entertainment world lost one of its best and brightest to an apparent suicide. Robin Williams, who brought laughter to so many for so long, took his own life at the age of 63. So much has been written about his talent over the past week that it’s difficult to understand or accept how such a thing could have happeneshutterstock_198363611d. But, Robin Williams’ tragic death is a reminder to all of us of the very real and very serious presence of anxiety and depression in our daily lives regardless of whether we ourselves or a close friend or family member suffers from these afflictions.

Just as much as depression can affect our home and family lives, it also has a serious impact at work. In 1995, the National Institute of Mental Health estimated that as many as 1 in 20 employees was suffering from depression. So, count how many employees work for your company and do the math. If you are a company of any size, it’s likely that at least one or more of your employees may be dealing with his or her own depression or that of a family member.

Depression may manifest itself in any number of ways, including decreased productivity, morale problems, lack of cooperation, safety risks and accidents, absenteeism, complaints of being tired all the time or of unexplained aches and pains, and/or alcohol and drug abuse, just to name a few. These symptoms can be present periodically or persistently. And the threat may not be only to productivity but also to the safety of the individual and his or her coworkers.

But, you may be asking yourself, “what’s an employer to do?” It’s highly likely that neither you nor the members of your management team are properly trained mental health professionals. It would be much more appropriate for your company to establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help employees with personal problems that can affect their well-being and work performance. An EAP can provide counseling or treatment to assist employees (and their family members) with issues such as (1) substance abuse, (2) financial problems, and (3) emotional distress, among others. Employers offering an EAP should be sure to communicate to employees that treatment is confidential (unless an EAP counselor is legally required to disclose information such as child abuse) and won’t become a part of their personnel records.

Even if you have an established EAP or other similar program, you would not want your management staff going around asking every underperforming employee whether they are suffering from depression. Rather, the important thing is to train supervisors to spot performance and morale issues when they occur and report them to the appropriate individuals, either within management or human resources, so the company can address the situation appropriately.

Once the appropriate company representative is notified, he/she can approach the affected employee in a way that doesn’t encroach upon the individual’s privacy while offering an opportunity to get the needed help. The best way to do this is to approach the situation with a focus on the employee’s particular performance deficiency. For instance, the supervisor could say to the employee: “I have noticed you’ve been coming in late more frequently and that the product of your work has not been up to par. I do not know if this is the case for you, but you should know that if personal issues are affecting your work, the company offers an assistance program you can contact confidentially,” as opposed to saying, “You seem depressed. Is something wrong?” In addition, if the employee comes to a supervisor and talks about mental health problems, the supervisor should listen but not try to diagnose, and should recommend that the employee seek help from a professional regardless of whether the company has an EAP.

Though it may be difficult, it is important to address the signs and symptoms of mental illness in the workplace as they appear. Establishing an EAP or similar program is one way to provide help to your employees when they most need it and may improve the overall safety of your workforce.