Work depression: What it is, how to deal with it

Emmanuel Zvada is an award-winning 2020 Most Fabulous Global HR Practitioner, HR disrupter and trusted coach.

Mental health problems have an impact on employers and businesses directly through increased absenteeism, negative impact on productivity and perfomance . There has been considerable interest recently in the relationship between depression and the workplace. This interest is driven by the growing recognition that depressive disorders are highly prevalent in the workplace as many people spend one third of their life at work. Ignoring depression is no longer an option. Rather than be bystanders, everyone in the workplace can help to address this issue.

Why depression discussions? 

Depression is a serious medical condition of the brain that affects a person’s mood, concentration, activity level, interests, appetite, social behaviour and physical health. Although depression is treatable, oftentimes it is a lifelong condition with periods of wellness alternating with depressive recurrences. By understanding the warning signs, we can help employees and co-workers seek treatment sooner, so that they do not suffer needlessly. Employed people with depression feel exhausted, but it is important to understand that their working conditions alone did not cause their depression. Most often, it is not the workplace but the depressive disorder, that makes them feel this way.

The first step towards managing workplace depression is understanding what it is and what might have caused it. Depression is a complex issue and many individuals who experience it can feel different symptoms at different times. The most common signs of depression are a lack of energy, low mood, decreased focus, feeling worthless and helpless at work and generally not being able to find pleasure in the things you love including your job. While it can be easy to spot depression for some people, it can be very difficult to identify the signs and realise you need support. This is even more true in the workplace where we are much less likely to be open about our feelings and have honest discussions about our mental health issues.

Signs of workplace depression

The signs of depression at work are similar to general depressive symptoms. That said, some may look more specific to a workplace setting. This depression will affect your level of functioning in your job as well as at home. Depression in the workplace can be invisible and may go undetected. However, there are noticeable signs that could initiate a conversation. An employee may be coming late to meetings or missing them entirely, or someone who's absent more than they are intended to be in the office. Sadness, anxiety, loss of motivation, difficulty concentrating, unexplained bouts of crying, and boredom are just a small sampling of the things you may be feeling if you’re experiencing depressive symptoms at work.

Work stress vs work depression

It’s not uncommon to experience stress at work, but don’t ignore feelings of depression. It’s important to know the difference. The difference between work stress and depression is that stress causes occasional bouts of anxiety and be irritable at work and also normally cause muscle tension or headaches. Work depression causes increased feelings of sadness and crying and persistent feeling of anxiety coupled with increased lack of focus and concentration. Normally with depression you feel bored and not fulfilled in your job. No matter where you work, managing depression symptoms at work can be challenging. The good news is there are things you can do when you’re feeling depressed.

Dealing with depression

From an employee's perspective, impact of depression remains largely unmitigated due to stigma, uncertainty about treatment’s effectiveness, and lack of effective interventions in a workplace setting. Sharing personal information at work can feel uncomfortable. However, making it known at your workplace that you are living with depression will make your life easier. Here are some examples of the questions or thoughts you might have, with reassuring support to help make talking about depression at work easier for you.

Employer’s duty

Since depression saps your energy, motivation, and interest, it’s important to identify things in your job or work setting that bring you either some enjoyment or feelings of accomplishment. In actual fact, discussions of mental health and depression are inseperable. Organisations must normalise discussing on mental health issues because by so doing they will also be dealing with depression. Employers have a duty of care towards their employees. Everyone has the right to a safe and healthy working environment. Work can be a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health or depression. Much can be done to prevent depression at work but at the same time, it can also worsen it in some people. Employers must walk a thin line while managing depression at work.

Promoting  and supporting wellbeing issues at work

There is no doubt that improving employee wellbeing is beneficial to any organisation and wellbeing should be considered part of an employer’s ethical responsibility particularly when we consider how prevalent mental health issues are.  A company that prioritises health and wellbeing in the workplace will not only reduce absenteeism, but also attract and retain talent, improve productivity and boost morale. There are small steps that organisations can take to ensure wellbeing is a priority in their employees’ day-to-day working lives and one of them is simply promoting  and supporting wellbeing issues at work. Improving employee wellbeing must be a priority, and employers should be considerate about how their wellbeing strategy builds on and aligns to their health and safety policy.

Create an open, inclusive caring  culture

As with any facet of company culture, creating and encouraging a sense of belonging in your workplace begins at the leadership level. Employees need to believe that their organisation provides a positive and inclusive working environment and trust that they will be provided with the support they need. Otherwise, it may be difficult to break down the stigma around mental health at workplaces.This requires employers to create a culture that supports inclusivity, and champion that culture daily, on the same note it should be made clear  that any mental health and wellbeing issue employees wish to discuss will always be treated with confidentiality, respect and understanding, never intolerance.

Healthy working environment can reduce depression

Workplaces can be places of both opportunity and risk for mental health. On the one hand, workplaces that promote good mental health and reduce work stress not only enhance mental and physical health but are also likely to reduce absenteeism, improve work performance and productivity, boost staff morale and motivation, and minimise tension and conflict between colleagues. So action to protect and promote mental health in the workplace can be cost–effective. Employers and governments have a responsibility to promote and protect people’s mental health at work.

Run mental health and wellbeing initiatives

Good mental health at work and good management go hand-in-hand and there is strong evidence such workplaces have high levels of mental wellbeing. Smart employers know that organisations perform better when employees are healthy, motivated and focused. Organisations must develop a mental health strategy. A clear policy should set out how the organisation will promote wellbeing for all staff, tackle the causes of work-related mental health problems and support staff experiencing them. Creating proactive options that help people improve and maintain their mental health is key to helping employees flourish.

Workplaces can also contribute towards recovery from depression, by creating a non-stigmatising environment for example. With some basic knowledge and competency about depression, workplaces can recognise symptoms, adapt working conditions accordingly (if need be) and support those seeking help. Good mental health at work and good management go hand-in-hand and there is strong evidence that workplaces with high levels of mental wellbeing are more productive.

Emmanuel Zvada is an award-winning 2020 Most Fabulous Global HR Practitioner, HR disrupter and trusted coach. For comments inbox or call +263771467441 


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