How to Support Employees Through Workplace Depression

4th March 2024
 minute read

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When an employee is experiencing depression, it can have a serious impact on their performance and working relationships. It can also have a cascading effect on the team and organisation. That is why it is essential for leaders and HR professionals to be able to understand the workplace factors that can lead to depression. However, one challenge with the condition is that it is not always easy to spot. Also, managers can feel uncertain about how to raise the topic with individuals. So it is also crucial to be able to recognise the signs, open up compassionate conversations, and offer the right kind of support.

What is depression?

Depression is a common but serious mood disorder that negatively affects how a person feels, thinks and handles daily activities. It goes beyond occasional sadness or feeling "down" and can have profound effects on an individual's ability to work, their relationships and their overall quality of life. 

A critical step in supporting employees with depression involves challenging and dispelling common myths. For example, depression is not a result of a lack of willpower, nor does it signify weakness. It cannot be simply "snapped out of" and often requires professional treatment to manage. When someone’s struggling with tasks due to depression, they’re not being "lazy" and it’s not a reflection of their true abilities. Understanding these facts is crucial in combating workplace stigma and creating a supportive environment for all employees.

Recognising signs of depression

Recognising the signs of depression is crucial for early intervention and support. Depression can affect every aspect of a person's life, including their emotions, physical health and behaviour. The signs can vary widely among individuals, but there are common symptoms to look out for:

Emotional symptoms

  • Persistent sadness or low mood: this is often described as feeling "down," "hopeless" or "empty" most of the day, nearly every day.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt: people might criticise themselves harshly for perceived faults and mistakes, feeling an exaggerated sense of guilt over minor issues.
  • Irritability: sometimes people are more short-tempered and say things out of character when they’re depressed.

Physical symptoms

  • Changes in appetite or weight: significant weight loss or gain without trying can be a sign, with some experiencing a loss of appetite and others turning to food for comfort.
  • Sleep disturbances: this includes insomnia (difficulty falling or staying asleep) or hypersomnia (oversleeping).
  • Fatigue or loss of energy: feeling tired all the time, even without physical exertion, and finding it difficult to complete simple tasks.

Behavioural symptoms

  • Withdrawal from social situations: avoiding being around people such as friends or colleagues, or avoiding work social events.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure: individuals may lose interest in their work or in activities or hobbies they once enjoyed.
  • Neglecting personal care: showing little interest in maintaining personal hygiene, grooming or health.

Cognitive symptoms

  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions: having trouble focusing on work tasks or making choices, even about simple matters.
  • Persistent pessimism: viewing the world, the future and oneself through a persistently negative lens. Feeling that things will never improve.  
  • Thoughts of death or suicide: frequent or obsessive thoughts about death, dying or suicide, whether or not there is a plan to act on these thoughts.

Behavioural changes to watch for in the workplace

In the workplace, changes in behaviour that may indicate depression include:

  • Frequent absences: taking more sick days than usual or frequently arriving late or leaving early.
  • Changes in work performance: a noticeable decline in quality or productivity, missing deadlines or struggling with tasks that were previously handled well.
  • Social withdrawal: pulling away from team activities, meetings or other interactions with colleagues.
  • Increased sensitivity: reacting unusually sensitively to feedback, criticism or everyday workplace interactions.

Recognising these signs requires a careful and compassionate approach, especially in the workplace. It's important not to jump to conclusions or diagnose someone based on observations alone. However, if you notice a pattern of these symptoms in a colleague, it might be time to offer confidential support. Our 7 Steps to Handling Difficult Conversations at Work is a useful guide.

How employees might mask depression

Depression is often called the "invisible illness" because its symptoms aren't always visible or straightforward to recognise, particularly when individuals go to great lengths to mask their true feelings. This can especially be the case in a professional setting.

Employees may hide their depression for various reasons, including fear of stigma, not wanting to burden others, or professional concerns. Here are some examples of how depression might be masked, making it difficult to recognise:

Overcompensation in social settings

Some people may overcompensate by appearing extremely outgoing, cheerful and active in social settings. They might be the "life of the party" to hide their inner turmoil, leading others to believe they couldn't possibly be depressed.


A person might immerse themselves in work and overachieve as a coping mechanism to distract themselves from their depressive feelings, leading observers to see them as highly driven or successful, rather than struggling.

Humour and laughter

People might constantly crack jokes, laugh excessively and maintain a façade of being carefree. Using humour as a shield can deflect attention from their pain and make it seem like they're in good spirits.


Some may strive for perfection in all aspects of their life, from work to their appearance, as a way to maintain control and mask feelings of inadequacy or sadness. Their perfectionism can mask underlying issues, as their efforts to appear flawless overshadow signs of distress.

Excessive busyness

Keeping an excessively busy schedule can be a way to avoid facing depressive symptoms. By filling every moment with activities — or frequently working late — individuals can avoid downtime, which might otherwise bring their feelings to the forefront.

Somatic complaints

Focusing on physical ailments rather than emotional distress is another way people might mask depression. They may frequently complain about various physical symptoms, such as headaches, fatigue or gastrointestinal issues, without acknowledging their emotional pain.

Social media persona

By sharing only the highlights or crafting a seemingly perfect online persona, people mask their depression and hide their struggles from the outside world. They present a false image of happiness and fulfilment.

What can contribute towards depression in the workplace?

Depression in the workplace can stem from a variety of factors, often related to job structure, work environment, interpersonal relationships at work and the individual's personal circumstances and coping mechanisms. 

These factors can interact in complex ways, leading to feelings of failure, exacerbating stress and potentially leading to depression. Here are some key contributors to workplace depression:

High stress levels

  • Demanding workloads: excessive workloads, tight deadlines and unrealistic expectations can lead to feelings of failure and hopelessness, which are major contributors to depression.
  • Lack of control: Feeling powerless over tasks, schedules, or workload can increase stress as well as contributing to feelings of helplessness and depression.

Poor work-life balance

  • Long working hours: spending too much time at work — especially if it encroaches on personal time — can lead to burnout and depression.
  • Inflexible work schedules: lack of flexibility in work hours can make it difficult for employees to balance personal and professional responsibilities. This can lead to feeling never able to do enough, stress and depression.

Toxic work environment

  • Workplace bullying or harassment: being subjected to any form of mistreatment at work can lead to feelings of anger, low self-esteem and depression. Our Guide to Workplace Bullying offers more insights. 
  • Poor interpersonal relationships: strained relationships with colleagues or supervisors, particularly when not addressed, can trigger depression.

Job insecurity and career concerns

  • Fear of redundancy: worrying about job security — especially in industries with high volatility — can be a significant source of stress and anxiety, leading to depression.
  • Lack of career development: feeling stuck in a job with little opportunity for advancement or personal growth can lead to dissatisfaction and depression.

Mismatch between job and person

  • Lack of meaning or engagement: working in a role that feels unfulfilling or doesn't align with personal values or interests can affect self-worth and contribute to a lack of engagement and depression.
  • Underuse of skills: feeling that your abilities are not being fully utilised or appreciated can lead to frustration and depression.

Personal vulnerabilities

  • Pre-existing low self-worth: individuals with high levels of self-criticism and sensitivity to failure may be more susceptible to workplace stressors.
  • Personal stressors: external stressors, such as family responsibilities or financial problems, can compound work-related stress, increasing the risk of depression.

Recognising and addressing these factors can help to create a healthier workplace that supports mental wellbeing. Employers can play a crucial role in this by promoting a positive work environment, ensuring fair workloads, offering support for stress management (such as therapy) and fostering open communication about mental health. Offering access to appropriately qualified therapists and workplace mental health resources is also crucial and can save lives.

Having regular, informal check-ins with employees to ask how they’re doing and discuss their needs can provide ongoing support. It can also help to identify any additional adjustments that may be needed.

Making reasonable adjustments

Employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments for employees with mental health conditions, including depression. This can include adjustments to their work environment or responsibilities. These adjustments are designed to help employees manage their symptoms more effectively, maintain their productivity and remain engaged with their work. 

The goal is to create a more inclusive and supportive workplace that recognises and accommodates individual needs. Here are several key areas where adjustments can be made:

Flexible working arrangements

  • Flexible hours: allowing employees to start and finish their workday at times that suit them better can help manage energy levels. It can also accommodate therapy or medical appointments.
  • Remote work options: working from home can provide a more comfortable environment for those struggling with depression and reduce the need to mask how they’re feeling.
  • Part-time work: temporarily reducing work hours can help employees who are finding full-time hours overwhelming.

Adjusting workloads and deadlines

  • Realistic deadlines: extending deadlines or adjusting project timelines can reduce stress and prevent feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Prioritising tasks: helping employees prioritise their work can ensure that they focus on the most critical tasks and feel more confident in doing them.
  • Redistributing tasks: temporarily reallocating some tasks to other team members can help an employee struggling with depression to find their feet again.

Workplace environment modifications

  • Quiet workspace: providing a quiet, private workspace can help reduce stress and distraction, making it easier for someone with depression to concentrate.
  • Ergonomic adjustments: ensuring that the physical work environment is comfortable and ergonomically suitable can help reduce physical strain and improve overall wellbeing.

Training and awareness

  • Mental health training: providing training for managers, HR professionals and team members on mental health awareness foster a more supportive and understanding work environment.
  • Anti-stigma campaigns: promoting mental health awareness and challenging stigma within the workplace can encourage a more open and supportive culture.

Leave and time off

  • Mental health leave: offering specific leave for mental health reasons — or making it easier for employees to take time off when needed — can provide them with the space to focus on recovery.
  • Gradual return to work: offering a phased return to work for employees coming back from mental health leave can help this to feel more manageable.

It's important to note that reasonable adjustments should be tailored to the individual's specific needs and made in consultation with them. What works for one person may not be suitable for another. Open, honest, and sensitive communication is key to determining the most effective adjustments. Employers should also be mindful of privacy and confidentiality, ensuring that any discussions about depression and adjustments are handled discreetly and respectfully.

By making the right accommodations and creating a workplace culture that prioritises mental health, organisations can help employees navigate difficult times in their lives. This will also help to create a working environment where everyone feels seen, supported and safe.

How to Support Employees Through Workplace Depression
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