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How to manage and support an employee with depression

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
One in six people in the UK suffer with mental health problems. Photo: Getty Images

Given how common mental health problems are, it’s likely that at some point, employers will find themselves in a situation where a staff member is struggling. 

Currently, one in six workers are dealing with a mental health problem such as depression, anxiety or stress, according to the charity Mind. Mental health issues are also a leading cause of long-term absence for employees, with a total of 12.8 million working days lost to mental illness in the UK from 2018 to 2019.  

Although awareness and understanding of mental health problems is on the rise, it can still be difficult for an employer to know how to support a staff member with depression. So what should you do if someone you manage has a mental health issue? 

Create an open environment to talk 

It’s never easy to bring up personal issues or your health at work, but giving employees a safe space to talk is crucial for someone with depression, anxiety or any other mental health problem. 

“Research by Mind found that almost half (48%) of all employees surveyed said they had experienced a mental health problem in their current job,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind. “Given that poor mental health in the workplace is so common, employers need to ensure they create mentally healthy workplaces for all their staff.” 

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Creating a supportive environment is more than just allowing staff to speak up, though. “It’s about finding out what that person needs,” says Jackie Rogers, a therapist and member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy who also advises employers about mental health support. “You need to listen, not just half listen.” 

However, it’s also important not to push someone who you think may need help, Rogers adds. Instead, just let them know you are there if they need you – and make yourself available when they’re ready. 

“It can help to have leaflets around so employees can find information confidentially which can signpost them to support,” Rogers says. Mind and the Samaritans can provide advice and support. 

Know what to say and what not to say  

It can be difficult to know what to say or how to react to someone who discloses that they have a mental health problem, meaning even the most well-intentioned managers can slip up sometimes. 

Firstly, it’s important to provide a quiet, private place for personal discussions to take place, as someone is unlikely to feel comfortable opening up about their feelings in the middle of an office. If someone works remotely, you may want to find a suitable place outside of the office or go to where they are, if possible.

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It’s also essential to avoid making assumptions. Don’t try to guess what symptoms an employee might have and how these may affect their ability to do their job. However, it’s good to be clear and honest about if you have any specific concerns, for example, about frequent absences. Mind offers some helpful advice about having conversations with a worker about their health. 

To learn more about recognising the signs of a mental health problem, employers and employees can do a Mental Health First Aid course. Over two days on MHFA England’s training courses, people are taught to recognise early signs and symptoms, are told about the services available locally, and learn how to listen in an empathetic, non-judgmental way. 

Be creative with solutions

Once you’ve had a conversation with an employee, you should develop an action plan. Allowing flexible hours, working from home and ensuring staff aren’t inundated with work are all key factors for both protecting workers’ health and supporting those with an existing mental health problem. 

It can be helpful to listen to employees’ suggestions, as they may well know what will help them. Although giving someone more time off or different hours may seem like an inconvenience, looking after your staff will effectively look after your business. “Employers should explore with the individual their specific needs and be as creative as possible when thinking about how to address these issues,” Mamo says. 

“It’s also important for leaders to role-model healthy working habits and behaviours, such as taking proper breaks. Wellness Action Plans (WAPs), available for free from Mind’s website, are useful tools to help facilitate conversations about mental health and can easily be implemented in the workplace.” 

Allow people to take time off 

An employee may well be signed off work by a doctor, but it can also help to offer an employee time off as an option. Not everyone will want this, however - as everyone is different. 

If an employee is off work, it’s important not to bother them too much as it can cause added stress and pressure, Rogers adds. Checking to see how someone is doing is fine - and it can show that you care about their wellbeing - but constantly sending emails, texts or ringing may well contribute to anxiety someone may have about being away from the office.  

“For some employees, they may be so unwell they will to take time off to recover and it is important to recognise this,” Mamo says. “Organisations will have sickness absence and return to work policies which should make it clear people must be treated equally whether their sickness absence is for a mental health or physical health problem.”