How to help someone at work who is struggling with depression
Identifying, approaching and supporting someone in the workplace with depression
Did you know that 3 million Australians are currently living with depression or anxiety? And that 45 per cent of Australians between the ages of 16 and 85 will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime?
1 in 6 women and 1 in 8 men will experience some level of depression. Not only that, but only 35% of Australians with anxiety or depression will access treatment, with men less likely to seek help than women. Which means that someone in your social network- be it a friend, neighbour or colleague has previously experienced anxiety or depression or may be struggling with it right now.
So when you notice in the workplace that someone’s not their usual self, what do you do? How do you approach them, offer support and more importantly, what do you say? Broaching the subject of how someone is coping, particularly in the workplace, may make you feel uneasy. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
You will feel more confident to help someone with depression when you know the signs and symptoms and how to approach someone who may feel depressed.
What is depression?
Depression is a serious mental health condition. It’s more than just having a bad day or experiencing low mood. While we all feel sad or low at times, some people experience these feelings for long periods of time. When someone is depressed, it can change their brain chemistry, which makes it difficult to function on a day to day basis.
Depression is usually diagnosed by a GP, psychologist or other health professional. There are many effective treatment options for people with depression including medication, therapy, mindfulness and even self-help programs.
Symptoms of depression
You’ve noticed a colleague isn’t their usual self, but how do you know if it’s cause for concern? Some of the symptoms of depression that your colleague may be experiencing include:
- Withdrawal from social interactions (avoidance of team lunches or coffee runs with colleagues)
- Oversharing personal information
- Frequent absences from work
- Observed to be low in mood
- Less talkative than usual
- Expressing negative thoughts or feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or helplessness
- Poor concentration
- Decreased productivity
- Excessive weight loss or gain
- Seems to be tired all of the time (they may also complain about poor sleep or over-sleeping)
If these symptoms of depression have been observed for more than two weeks, then it could mean your colleague is experiencing depression. It may also mean there’s something else happening in their lives causing distress such as the loss of a loved one, or a relationship breakdown.
Your colleague may have a history of mental illness that they’ve not disclosed (for various reasons) to your workplace. While anxiety and depression are treatable conditions, many people find they will struggle with recurrent bouts of symptoms at stressful times in their lives. With treatment and support, people can learn their triggers and identify when to seek help earlier.
What can you do if you notice a colleague is depressed?
It’s not easy to know how to help someone who is depressed. Not only that, but it can be hard to know what to say or do without making the situation worse. Here are some tips:
1. Ask the person how they are doing. In a place that’s private and comfortable, ask your colleague how they are feeling. Let them know you’ve noticed they’re not their usual self and that you’re concerned about them.
Be relaxed and calm. People with depression may feel defensive or embarrassed, so try to ask the questions gently and wait for them to respond. Some simple questions you can ask are: “You seem a bit down lately.” or “Are you okay?”
2. Listen, don’t judge. This can be really hard because we live in a world where we want to ‘fix’ problems, but for someone who feels depressed, they just want to be heard.
If your colleague says they’re fine, but you still feel concerned, then let them know you’re available to chat when they feel ready. You could also ask them if there’s someone else they’d rather talk to- like another colleague or a manager. If you still feel worried and your colleague doesn’t want to talk about it, then you may want to raise it with your manager, or a trusted colleague, or contact your workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for further advice.
If your colleague says they aren’t okay, then dig a bit deeper. Ask, “what has been happening?” Allow them to talk and ask them how long they’ve been feeling this way. Reflect back statements such as “that sounds really stressful,” or “I’m here for you.” Just being with them and showing an interest can be very helpful, even if you can’t help them solve their problem.
3. The next step. Once you’ve listened to your colleague share what they are going through, it can be helpful to come up with one way to improve their situation. You may have some ideas of what may help, but it is far better if you ask your colleague what will help them feel better. Ask them questions such as:
“How can I help?”
“What will help take the pressure off you?”
“Have you thought about seeing a professional?”
If they are really not coping, then you could suggest they talk to their manager (if appropriate), or speak to a doctor or a psychologist. Again, your colleague may not be ready to take that next step. Encourage them to have a think about it and let them know you’re there for them.
4. Follow up. Once you’ve raised your concerns with your colleague, it’s important to check back in with them in a few days. One of the most challenging aspects of supporting someone with depression is that they tend to withdraw and push people away. This can make it hard for you to check in with them, so you’ll need to go out of your way to make sure they’re okay.
5. Self-care. Supporting someone with depression can be emotionally demanding and may leave you feeling anxious or sad. Make sure you take some time to look after yourself by eating well, exercising and having a good sleep routine.
What happens if your colleague discloses suicidal thoughts?
If someone is feeling very depressed, they may also have thoughts about wanting to end their life. Many people believe that if you ask someone about suicidal thoughts, it will put these thoughts in their head. This is a myth!
There are approximately 65,300 suicide attempts in Australia each year. This is not a topic we should shy away from. If you’re worried about your colleague’s mental state it’s okay to ask them: “Have you had any thoughts about wanting to hurt yourself or someone else?”
If they say yes, remain calm and resist the urge to dismiss or talk them out of these thoughts. Follow up with: “Have you any plans to follow through on these thoughts?”
For some people with suicidal thoughts, they are just thoughts, and they have no intention of acting on them. But it reflects how distressed they feel and how badly they want to escape these feelings. For other people, they will have taken the next step in the thought process and have fantasised or planned the way they may follow through with taking their own life. This must be taken SERIOUSLY.
Mental Health Crisis Support
If your colleague discloses suicidal thoughts and/ or a plan, do not leave them alone. Ensure they are safe, and get immediate medical help. These options are available in the case of a mental health crisis:
- Take them to their GP
- Take them to the emergency department at the local hospital
- Contact a 24-hour mental health crisis line
- Workplace EAP program
Ahead Psychology has psychologists who are experienced in treating depression and providing mental health first aid. We also have an EAP service to provide workplace counselling and support to employees in small and medium-sized business in Brisbane and surrounds. Call Ahead Psychology on (07) 3352 3577 or send us a message.
Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007. Cat. no. (4326.0). Canberra: ABS.
Lifeline (2018). Statistics on Suicide in Australia. Retrieved from: https://www.lifeline.org.au/about-lifeline/lifeline-information/statistics-on-suicide-in-australia