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    How to Manage an Employee with Depression

    How to Manage an Employee with Depression
    Harvard Business Review
    January 15, 2020

    Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. One in five Americans are affected by mental health issues, with depression being the most common problem. A recent report by Blue Cross Blue Shield found that depression diagnoses are rising at a faster rate for millennials and teens than for any other generation. All told, the disorder is estimated to cost $44 billion a year in lost productivity in the U.S. alone.

    Yet despite this enormous and growing toll, many employers take an ad hoc approach to handling depression among employees. Many managers become aware of mental health issues only when they investigate why a team member is performing poorly. A better scenario would be if employees felt empowered to report a mental health problem and ask for a reasonable accommodation so that their manager can intervene to minimize the damage to the organization and help the employees return as quickly as possible to full health.

    Here is a guide for managers on how to negotiate work arrangements for individuals with depression.

    Learn About the Disorder

    It would be easy to think that an employee with depression will first speak with HR staff about work accommodations, but it is likely that your team member (or one of their colleagues) will speak with you first.

    Because an employee may come to you without warning, you need to prepare ahead of time and learn about depression and its symptoms. These include loss of interest, decreased energy, feelings of low self-esteem or control, disturbed sleep, and poor concentration.

    If you understand the symptoms of depression, then you will be able to anticipate work performance issues and the types of accommodations an employee might request.

    Allow a Flexible Schedule

    For many companies, a normal work schedule implies being in the office from nine to five. However, an employee suffering from depression may come to you and ask to come into the office later in the day. Sleep problems are common in depression and can involve oversleeping as well as difficulties falling or staying asleep. Helping an employee with a work schedule is therefore a reasonable accommodation and is supported by research.

    Research from the 1980s through today suggests that flexible work hours actually increase productivity, commitment to the organization, and retention.

    However, if you allow flexible hours, research suggests two recommendations. First, if needed, set a window of "core hours" or "core days" in which all team members must be at the office. People dealing with depression benefit from structure but often find it difficult to create structure for themselves. You can help by facilitating this in a sensitive and responsive manner. Second, don't let employees with depression stop interacting with you or other team members. Be on the lookout for avoidance on the part of your employee. Withdrawal only exacerbates the sense of isolation that depressed employees already feel.

    When left alone, people with depression are more likely to ruminate on the negative effects of depression. This further worsens the situation. If you suspect that this is happening, step in and check in. What is key here is that you reach out in a supportive and non-judgmental manner. Research suggests that social relationships at work can act as buffers against depression, and that stronger relationships with managers and peers can lower depression.

    Simplify Work Scope

    Depressed employees may tell you their workload feels too overwhelming or complicated. Depression can affect cognitive function. Cognitive function can also be affected by lack of sleep.

    As a manager, you can help by breaking up large projects into smaller tasks. The benefit of giving smaller, more manageable tasks, is that it empowers employees to achieve more frequent experiences of success.

    Depression is associated with diminished processing of rewards. The more you, as a manager, can do to reinforce success, the better. Repeated victories over time create new and more frequent positive work experiences. This influences the way employees perceive their environment and increases positive expectancies. These "wins" increase employee confidence that they can accomplish future tasks assigned to them.

    Share Deadlines as Needed

    Too many deadlines can be overwhelming to anyone. Furthermore, those suffering from depression often have low expectancies about their ability to deal with future stressful events.

    When sharing deadlines, communicate only as needed. Yes, a project manager needs to see the timeline for the entire project, but for a specialist on your team, especially one with depression, a full timeline may increase stressors and negative emotions.

    As a manager, you can help an employee with depression by breaking down large projects into their component parts. By sharing fewer, shorter-term deadlines, you reduce negative emotions by reducing the input of stressors. Shorter-term deadlines allow employees to see large projects as smaller, more manageable tasks, which research shows creates higher levels of work adherence and productivity. As noted above, this approach can also facilitate a sense of agency - something that is frequently compromised in the context of depression.

    Focus on Positive Outcomes and Criticize Less

    People who are depressed can be highly self-critical. Rather than highlighting failures, focus on supporting and celebrating moments of achievement, such as when employees meet deadlines. Moreover, research shows that people who are criticized by someone whom they perceive as highly critical of them are less able to activate neurocircuits that control negative emotions.

    Motivation in depressed employees plummets in the face of threats and punishment. Research suggests that explaining the positive necessity of assignments as a motivation tool is far more effective than sharing the detrimental costs of an unfinished project. Framing assignments in terms of benefits and importance increases their perceived appeal and strengthens intrinsic motivation in employees.

    If your employee continues to drop the ball, you may be tempted either to assign to the employee menial tasks, or to penalize the employee with exceptionally difficult tasks that force the employee to work harder. In reality, it's possible that your employee feels as though either one of these scenarios has already occurred. Check in with your employees regularly and make sure the work assignments match the current abilities and talents of your staff.

    Additionally, know the strengths of your employees and play to those strengths. If your employees feel like tasks are designed for them, they'll be more likely to view the tasks as important, complete them more quickly, and experience a sense of validation.

    This method could be both immediately and ultimately beneficial, as research shows that people who feel as though assignments are useful and catered specifically to their abilities are more interested in the assignments and experience diminished levels of depression in the long term.

    Be a Leader

    Coping with depression is difficult, not only for the person with depression but also for those with whom the depressed person interacts. So, you should be attentive to how interacting with a depressed employee might make you feel. Does such a situation make you feel angry, frustrated, or diminished in your role? If so, remind yourself that the person with depression is dealing with symptoms that make every day a struggle. This is not about you. This is about how you, as a manger, can step up and help your employee. Keep in mind that depression is an illness. In most cases, it is also time-limited. By helping your employee with depression, you help your team, your company, and demonstrate strong leadership.

    Second, be proactive. Make sure your employees have the resources they need to be productive. Many companies nowadays have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or other resources available to employees free of charge. By sharing these resources from time to time, your team members will see you as an enlightened manager. This increases the likelihood that they may approach you when they experience problems - and before these problems seriously compromise their work performance.

    Additionally, if one in five Americans suffers from mental illness, consider the email communications that go out from HR or Corporate. How much of the communication contains information about mental health support and resources? Without proper planning and adjustments, depression is more likely to negatively affect work performance. As a leader, your job is to create a positive work environment that results in better outcomes for all employees - including those battling depression.

  2. #2
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    Re: How to Manage an Employee with Depression

    Interesting information. Thank you. I have been already looking for this.

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