Watch for signs of employee depression

Employees in the United States who have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives contribute to upward of 68 million missed workdays each year.1 The natural course of most depressive illnesses is more of a gradual decrease than a sudden drop. An employee could work for weeks, months — or in some cases, years — and become increasingly impaired by depression.

This slide is avoidable, however. Employers who spot signs of depression — particularly early on — may be able to help employees avert a disabling condition. Although the following signs could occur in any employee and shouldn’t be taken verbatim, employers should pay attention to little subtleties, which could add up to a larger issue over time.

Loss of focus and concentration. One of the most impairing symptoms of depression is the loss of concentration. Employees who can put up a “happy front” at work have a harder time masking symptoms of reduced concentration. This could become evident in a few ways:

  • Decreased quality and pace of work
  • Changed behavior in meetings and with face-to-face contact
  • Increase in irritability and defensiveness

Bottom line: Small changes can add up. While lack of concentration can be a casual thing, it can slow productivity over time.

Reduction in personal care and hygiene. One of the hallmarks of serious depression is a decline in personal care. In a work setting, changes may be smaller and less noticeable. Consider how employees usually appear at their best. This “baseline” applies to other things as well, including:

  • Pace and volume of speech
  • Response time and eye contact

Bottom line: Being an effective employer means noticing your employees’ normal day-to-day behavior as well as subtle changes.

Increased absence/lateness/early departure. Most employees have a stable pattern of work attendance. Significant changes in that normal rhythm can be an early warning sign, including time off due to:

  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Fatigue
  • Minor illness

However, this is a sensitive area, as employees are certainly entitled to sick days, or an occasional early departure or late arrival.

Bottom line: Watch the change from baseline. Fostering an atmosphere of caring and attention without judgment can go a long way toward establishing a healthy and productive workplace. Concerns that start with “I wanted to make sure everything is OK” will be better received than “You’ve been late three times this month.”

Helping your at-risk employees
Most of us believe we know what depression “looks like.” In reality, people who are depressed often experience a complicated and evolving set of symptoms. Your first step to help an at-risk employee is to ensure he or she knows about your workplace Employee Assistance Program. If the employee in question continues to show signs of impairment due to depression, arrange a meeting, gently pointing out your behavioral observations and asking if there’s anything he or she wants to talk about.

Noticing how your employees function daily will help immeasurably in spotting changes. Early detection of symptoms and acting on them can mean healthier, higher-functioning employees and a more productive workplace.

1Witters D, Agrawal S, Lin D. Depression Costs U.S. Workplaces $23 Billion in Absenteeism. Gallup website. Available at Accessed March 27, 2014.

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