How to manage an employee with depression

A guide to supporting a colleague with depression at work

If a colleague tells you that they are living with depression, it can be hard to know how to react. As a manager, you don’t need to have all the answers straight away, but there may be some simple adjustments you can make to help an employee with depression feel better and more productive at work. At the risk of sounding like an 80s corporate training video, communication is key. 

According to NHS data, depression affected 12% of adults in England in 2020/21. There are different types of diagnose-able depression. The most common are:

  • Clinical depression, also known as Major Depressive Disorder, which we’ll focus on for this article. 
  • Postnatal depression, experienced specifically by new parents. 
  • Bipolar disorder, also known as manic depression, which is characterised by extreme mood swings. People with bipolar disorder will experience many of the symptoms of clinical depression, which alternate with periods of high mood, or mania. 
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which is related to seasonal changes, particularly over winter. 

Clinical depression is characterised by a persistently low mood that lasts for weeks, months or sometimes years, if left untreated. It can come about over time, or appear quite suddenly, with or without a specific trigger like losing a family member or a job. It’s important to note that the feelings of sadness and hopelessness experienced by people with depression are just as potent without any discernible ‘cause’. 

How to recognise the symptoms of depression at work 

Depression can look (and feel) different to different people. And symptoms can vary from mild (in around 70% of cases) to severe (in around 10%), depending on the impact depression is having on someone’s daily life. 

For the person with depression, getting out of bed can feel impossible. Small tasks like taking a shower or writing an email may seem suddenly insurmountable, and a casual lunch with colleagues can summon up a genuine sense of dread. Hygiene and self-care might go out the window. The person is caught in a tide of sadness, aimlessness and negativity, and it feels easier to sink for a while than to swim.

It’s not up to you to diagnose depression in someone you work with, but if you spot any concerning changes in their behaviour, it might be time to have an open chat about the symptoms you’ve noticed.

With more of us working remotely, it can be even harder to stay connected and spot changes in a colleague’s day-to-day behaviour. But depression is likely to affect the way they approach their work, too. 

How depression affects an employee’s performance

Poor mental health affects business in a few ways. Absenteeism (not showing up to work), presenteeism (showing up but feeling unable to work effectively) and low productivity all have an impact on the bottom line. Work simply starts to feel a bit pointless when you’re suffering. 

Turning up to work with depression feels like turning up for a marathon with a sprained ankle. It can take all of your energy just to get to the starting line. Every milestone afterward is a long (and predictably painful) slog – and you start to doubt your ability to run in the first place. 

Apart from someone telling you they are depressed, there are a few ways to recognise a colleague who might be in need of support. (In isolation these  symptoms don’t necessarily signal workplace depression, but it’s still a good idea to check in if someone shows signs that they’re struggling.)

  • A lack of motivation, energy or drive
  • A new level of self-criticism about the work they’ve done
  • A drop in confidence or a new need for reassurance and feedback
  • Withdrawal from unstructured meetings or social calls
  • Procrastination or difficulty making decisions
  • Poor communication with colleagues
  • Indifference or forgetfulness 

It’s worth remembering that a diagnosis of depression doesn’t necessarily mean that an employee’s performance will drop. A reluctance to admit a problem in a professional space might mean they take it upon themselves to work longer hours to keep up with their workload, making their struggle quite invisible, and endangering their mental health even further. The sooner that they recognise they’re feeling unwell, the quicker they could be on the road to recovery. Which is why nurturing an open culture about mental health at work is so important. 

Managing an employee with depression

So, your colleague has disclosed that they are experiencing depression. If your work has a mental health policy in place, then you’ve got a head start, because your next steps have already been considered by the business. Either way, it can be tricky to navigate the situation sensitively. We asked Spill’s therapists for their top tips on managing someone who’s dealing with depression at work. 


🕵️ Assume nothing

It’s your duty to make reasonable adjustments for anybody in your team who’s experiencing poor mental health. But there’s no point guessing what those adjustments should be. Depression affects everybody differently, and it’s important to ask open questions and listen to what your colleague actually needs from you as a manager. 

Remember, you’re not here to give advice. You’re here to show support. Your main role at this stage is to find out how depression is affecting them at work, and what adjustments they might need to their environment, workload or routine. Your colleague might just want to let you know that they’re going through something personal, and they’d rather not make any changes to their working day yet. That’s fine, too. You don’t need to delve any deeper into the causes or ask about their mental health outside of work, unless they volunteer that information themselves. 

Some organisations allow a leave of absence so that staff who are having a personal crisis can take some time away from work. This can be an effective way to support someone with depression at work that’s been triggered by a situation like bereavement or relationship breakdown. But you can’t assume that time off is the answer, either. Some people with depression are relying on their normal routine or social interactions at work to get them through the day. You won’t know until you ask. 


🔒 Keep promises realistic

It’s important to show empathy for your colleague, without overpromising. Remember that you don’t need to have all the answers right away. You might need to talk to HR about implementing changes like flexible hours, for example, or you might like to talk to other managers in the business about their experience managing a similar mental health situation in their team. You can respect your employee’s privacy, but you shouldn’t promise them complete anonymity if there’s even a chance you’ll have to disclose their name and situation to anyone else in the business. 


🗓 Arrange a more flexible schedule

Sleep problems like insomnia or oversleeping are common symptoms of depression. That means your colleague might feel more productive if they start a little earlier or a little later than others in the team. Avoiding a busy (or dark) commute can also alleviate some feelings of anxiety.

Your colleague might need time away from work during the day to speak to a therapist, reconnect with family or nap off the side effects of medication – so allowing them a bit more flexibility in their schedule is a simple adjustment you can make that might make a big difference to their overall wellbeing. 

📚 Share resources

You are a magnificent signpost in this situation. If your workplace has a resource for mental health support, like an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or an app to access therapy, like Spill, then pointing your colleague in the direction of mental health professionals should be easy. 

If you don’t have any formal workplace support – and your colleague is asking for your help – then directing them to their GP is a safe first step. A doctor can check for any underlying medical conditions that might be causing symptoms of low mood, and refer them for counselling if necessary. 

Remember that engaging with therapy or any other treatment is entirely your colleague’s decision. Ultimately, they are responsible for their own health and performance at work, but in the midst of depression it can be hard to take action on your own. If they’d rather not talk to a doctor or therapist directly, there are other resources like local support groups and online communities that they might like to investigate, too. 

💙 Focus on work relationships 

Withdrawing from social situations is a common reaction to depression, but isolation can make things worse. If you notice your colleague doesn’t attend social team calls, lunches or culture meetings, try and circulate a plan beforehand so that the time feels a bit more structured and predictable. 

🗣 Book ongoing check-ins


There’s no reasonable timeframe for depression, so it’s a good idea to set aside time for ongoing, informal catch ups. This gives you both a chance to check in and see whether any further work adjustments are needed. Your colleague might like somebody else to attend these meetings or any performance reviews for moral support. People who are depressed can be self-critical, so if you have feedback, be conscious about celebrating their achievements rather than pointing out shortcomings. 


🎯 Break up big projects

Helping someone to prioritise their workload can tip into micromanagement quite easily, so keeping up an open conversation about what’s achievable from both sides is vital. It might be tempting to take work off your colleague’s plate while they’re experiencing depression, but this can have the nasty side effect of making them feel less valued and motivated at work. 

Breaking larger projects down into smaller deliverables is a better way to stop people from feeling overwhelmed, and might help your colleague to channel their energy more effectively. They’ll also get to experience that sweet sense of achievement and validation more often. 

___

We hope these pointers help you to support your colleague to get back to full health as quickly as possible. 

If you had no idea how to react when an employee told you they were experiencing poor mental health (or when you experienced poor mental health yourself) then there’s loads you can do to fight any mental health stigma in your workplace, and help your team feel better at work.

Download our free return-to-work manager checklist 👇