Depression is a serious mental health issue. It can affect anyone, at any time, and a third of workers in the UK suffer with depression, stress or anxiety. In 2017/18, this meant 15.4 million working days lost. David Price, wellbeing expert and CEO of Health Assured, advises employers on how to support employees suffering with depression.

Employers have a duty of care to their staff. As such, organisations need to look out for signs of depression at work and know how to reach out to those affected. But it’s not easy — not everyone suffers in the same way.

What is depression?

Depression is not simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days — a basic definition would be that it is “feeling down persistently for weeks or months”. At its mildest, it makes everything more challenging to do and seem less worthwhile.

In its most severe form, it can make a person feel suicidal or, put another way, lose the will to live. As well as mild, moderate and severe depression, there are specific types, including seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and dysthymia (chronic depression).

Depression and anxiety can often be experienced together, and depression can be a symptom of other mental health problems, such as bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder. People with severe depression can also experience some psychotic symptoms, eg delusions and hallucinations.

Depression can affect anyone, regardless of their gender or age. The causes of depression vary: factors can include life events, childhood experiences, genetics, physical conditions, medication, stress and lack of sleep.

Pressures at work can also cause and/or exacerbate this mental illness, for instance the fear of redundancy, working long hours, dealing with difficult people or situations, and being set unreasonable targets.

What are the signs of depression?

The signs of work-related depression — or depression in general — vary from person to person. Sometimes, a person can just be suffering from a low mood. But if you spot a colleague who seems to suffer from any of the following 10 signs of depression, you should make sure to keep an eye on them.

  1. A persistent anxiety, or a constant sadness — more than just feeling low, this could be affecting someone’s ability to complete work on time.

  2. Thoughts of hopelessness — the idea that nothing can improve and this pessimism will last forever.

  3. Loss of interest in hobbies or activities — the inability to find joy in things that previously kept them occupied.

  4. Weight changes — sudden and significant gains or losses in weight.

  5. Changes in sleep — either not getting enough, or sleeping much more than usual.

  6. Increased irritability — a shorter fuse than usual, with uncharacteristically angry reactions.

  7. Reckless behaviour — increased alcohol use, gambling, or dangerous activity.

  8. Concentration problems — no focus, an inability to make decisions or remember tasks.

  9. Suicidal ideation — thoughts of death or actual suicide attempts.

  10. Lethargy — a lack of energy or enthusiasm.

Other symptoms include: Increased amount of sick or absent days, excessive forgetfulness, tiredness and excessive yawning, withdrawal from colleagues and work social events, etc.

Not everyone displays signs of anxiety and depression the same way, so be careful not to jump to false conclusions.

What are the types of depression?

Diagnoses of depression fall into three categories: mild, moderate and severe. These are an indicator of how badly it impacts your life and affect the treatment you’ll be offered.

There are also some specific types of depression, as follows.

  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — this mostly occurs during the winter months, when the light draws in and days get shorter.

  • Dysthymia — also known as chronic depression, this is a persistent, continuous disorder lasting two years or more.

  • Prenatal depression — this occurs during pregnancy and is also known as antenatal depression.

  • Postnatal depression (PND) — this occurs in the weeks and months after birth and can affect men as well as women.

How to support an employee suffering depression

As we say, everyone suffers differently. But here are a few quick ways to offer support and guidance to someone with depression.

  • Offer support. Demonstrating real care and concern will help employees handle their illness.

  • Be flexible. After an employee’s depression has been identified, there may be flexibility required to help and support them. For example, a change of workspace, a change to start/finish times or adjusting their responsibilities.

  • Make a plan. Sit down with your employee and ask what would help them continue easily in their role. You’ll learn about their concerns and reduce the worry.

  • Create an open environment. If you are clear that your employees can approach you with any concerns, that’s one less cause of anxiety. Depression can be a difficult subject to bring up. Let people know that you understand.

  • Provide constructive feedback. Reward positive times and achievements with a simple congratulation. Your employee will appreciate the thought.

  • Respect their confidentiality. It is important to keep any suspicions or knowledge you have about an employee’s mental health confidential, and this includes those with depression. Talking to other colleagues would not only make the employee lose trust in you, but it can also negatively impact their mental health. If you need someone to talk to about your concerns, speak to the HR department.

  • Encourage them to talk. Whether you suspect an employee has depression or they have confided in you, encourage them to talk about it. This will lead to an understanding between you and the employee, as well as help with figuring out the steps to take to help and support them.

Further information

Expert advice

If you feel as though you are experiencing issues with your mental or physical health, contact Health Assured, the UK’s and Ireland’s largest employee assistance programme provider : 0844 891 0350.

Last reviewed 7 March 2019