How to help employees when they suffer with depression

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Tania Angelis
The Fairy Coachmother I work intuitively with people to help coach them towards achieving their dreams and goals. I am publishing a book on depression on Kindle Direct Publishing on 1 December. I have a varied background including working in both corporate and small businesses. I am a qualified holistic therapist, personal performance coach, business and executive coach.
Tania Angelis

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Depression affects 20% of the population

Research suggests that one in five of us will suffer with an episode of mental illness at some point in our lives.  That’s 20% of the population – a lot of people.  Yet mental health issues are still poorly understood by the general public and there is still a sense of shame and taboo around the subject.

Clinical depression is characterised by feelings of bleakness, of feeling that there is no reason to carry on with life, of not seeing why you are here on the planet.  Physical symptoms include extreme tiredness, an inability to concentrate, difficulty communicating, a sense of being heavy almost as if wading through treacle, a complete loss of energy and focus.   

As an employer you may be faced with an employee becoming ill because of depression.  Typical episodes of clinical depression take around 6-12 months to lift completely.  For an employer this is a long time to have a member of staff absent.  Many people who have episodes of depression are often the hardest working, most ambitious and very capable members of staff and can occupy key roles within an organisation.

So what can you as an employer do in this situation?  There are several options you can take to help your member of staff recover and return to the workplace.  If you have a company healthcare policy, make sure that it covers your staff for mental health issues as well as physical ones.  This will then help to reduce the costs to you as you can use the policy to help your member of staff.

If you can, offer your employee the chance to attend private counselling sessions.  Counselling is available through the NHS of course, however it can take around 3-4 months before regular sessions become available.  This is due to the high demand for the service.  Offering private counselling sessions will help to speed up the recovery of your employee.

If your healthcare policy covers it, arrange for your staff member to see a consultant psychiatrist to ensure that the diagnosis of depression is correct.  Many GPs offer a blanket diagnosis of depression when there can be other symptoms present which indicate other mental health conditions.  As far as practical, ensure that any recommendations made by the consultant are carried out to help your staff member.  If the consultant recommends any changes in the workplace, then please carry them out too.

If finances permit, continue to pay your employee their usual salary (providing this does not go against your company sickness policy) while they are absent.  Many people with depression end up in financial difficulties because of the long term drop in income that they suffer, due to the length of time it can take to fully recover.  This generally adds fuel to an already burning bonfire, so if you can see your way to ensuring they are well looked after financially, your employee will appreciate that.

Another way to help your employee as they begin to recover (around 3-4 months after the initial diagnosis), is to offer them some coaching sessions.  Coaching is a very good way of helping people focus on the future and find a new meaning to life.  People who suffer with depression are often very self-critical and coaching is a good way to help break this pattern.  This may also be covered by your company health policy.  Please ensure that the coach is aware of the employee’s mental health condition, and that they preferably have experience in working with people with depression.

Some healthcare policies cover holistic therapies, many of which are beneficial to lifting depression.  Acupuncture, massage and reiki (a form of energy healing) are often covered by policies, and they are all very beneficial to people with depression. They can help people overcome the lack of energy and begin to find their mojo again.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy is another very good tool to help challenge thinking patterns.  Again this can be offered through the NHS, although this can be patchy depending on what area your employee lives in.

When your employee is ready to return to the workplace, work with them to ensure it is a gentle phased return.  If they are normally a full time employee, start them with just 1 or 2 days a week at first, and gradually build up to a full week.  If they are part time, just do the same on a pro-rata basis.  Remember their energy levels may still not be great when they return, and they will tire easily.  If you can, make sure they have access to a rest area where they can take a bit of time out to help them get used to being back in the workplace.

Adjustments may need to be made in the workplace.  People with depression are often very sensitive to stimuli such as bright light, noise, computers, loud machinery and being in crowds.  These situations can feel very overwhelming, so if possible adjust their working place to be much quieter and let them find their own pace again.  If music is played in the workplace, try turning it off altogether for a few weeks while they readjust, or if that would upset other colleagues just turn it down a little.

Remember your staff member may feel very embarrassed when they return to work.  Many people who have episodes of depression are generally very strong capable individuals, so to break down in this way, can seem like a public acknowledgement of their weakness and vulnerability.  So just treat them as you did before and let them find their own voice again in their own time.

Most people who suffer with an episode of depression go on to make a full recovery.  They become just as productive as they were before the depression, so any help you can offer to your member of staff while they recover is money well invested.

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