Howling on the Inside:
What People with Depression Want Employers to Know
Originally written for the Hope Gain Center of Western Michigan.
If you work with four other people, odds are even that at least one of you suffer from a form of depression. That means 20% of the entire workforce - give or take a minor margin for error – are presently suffering right under their bosses’ noses![i] Of course, not every employer is well-versed in the symptoms of depression to watch for in their staff. Most employees would prefer to leave their employers in the dark when it comes to their mental health status. How can our society create a happy medium for employees to feel heard, respected, and accommodated while employers maintain productivity, quality, and profit?
Consider the Employer Perspective
Whether you work in fast food or are a fast-talking white shoe attorney, depression can grip you at any moment. Ultimately, it costs employers $17.8 billion annually in absenteeism and lost productivity. That’s to say nothing of what depression costs employees, the victims, themselves.[ii]
Ourselves, the Depressed Employees
Yup, I have depression too. This article aside, it’s not something I advertise. Why? Because I don’t want to be treated differently. I don’t want to be categorized as weak or even untrustworthy. I know these are just stereotypes; nevertheless, they’re stereotypes for a reason. And, honestly, I think it’s perfectly normal for someone with a chronic health condition like mine to have depression. Just as it’s equally normal for anyone else to have their own reasons to be depressed.
Usually keeping myself to myself, sharing this personal information definitely gives me the nervous stomach willies and a flash of Orwellian paranoia. But then I wondered: what if it didn’t?
What if I had the courage to clue in the boss? Is there any scenario where disclosing my depression would be beneficial? What sort of accommodations could el jeffe make for yours truly to have an improved, more productive workday?
Does Your Boss Understand Depression?
Thanks to television and pop psychology, a basic understanding of depression is assumed to include two types: the blues (mild) and the suicidal blues (major depressive disorder). There are actually eight types of clinical depression that include a myriad of symptoms and can affect the full spectrum of humanity, regardless of color or income (although people of color do suffer a higher incident of depression than whites). The types of depression are:
Major depressive disorder
The most common type of depression, this is commonly called clinical depression.
Persistent depressive disorder
Also called dysthymia, this type of depression can last over than two years.
Seasonal depressive disorder
This type of depression strikes during the entropic autumn and in the depths of winter, only freeing the sufferer when spring arrives.
Much more than the “baby blues” postpartum depression can have severe effects on how a parent cares for a new baby.
Premenstrual dysphoric disorder
This form of depression sets in at the same time as the menstrual cycle every month and improves when the period ends.
Along with the other awful symptoms of depression, this brand comes with hallucinations and delusions.
Bipolar disorder causes people to suffer huge mood swings ranging from the “manic,” when they are in a euphoric mood, energetic and talking fast to the “depressed,” which plumbs the depths of the disease and include its most horrific symptoms.
The final type, atypical depression, includes symptoms not found in the other forms, including mood swings at the end of the day or a physical heaviness in the arms and legs or even extreme difficulty handling rejection.
What type of depression do you have?
The type of depression you’re diagnosed with may have symptoms unique to you (even though we’re all built from the same factory second parts.) Perhaps most importantly, the symptoms and treatments for each type of depression will vary depending on the person. The important thing is that you’re aware of your depression, you acknowledge it as symptom and follow a doctor’s treatment plan for recovery.
Disclosure Versus Discovery
I’m a believer in full transparency and, truth be told, it’s probably cost me more than a few jobs. Even though it’s illegal to discriminate against someone with a physical or mental illness, it happens with obscene regularity and is practically impossible to prove in court. I’m positive that I’ve been released from jobs due to my chronic health conditions. Despite all this, I still preach full disclosure because if a company is willing to discriminate against me, they’re probably doing it to their employees and customers too. And I have no desire to work for an employer like that.
On the flip side of that coin, you may have a compassionate manager who understands depression and keeps their eyes open for opportunities to help their direct reports have a positive and productive work experience. Keep your fingers crossed for this kind of manager.
Mental illness costs employers an estimated $225.8 billion each year.[iii] That’s why it’s in your employer’s interest to listen to your disclosure and accommodate your depression.
Tips for Disclosure[iv]
Ask your boss to set aside some time to meet one on one. That way, you can have their privacy and attention.
Have what you want to say planned out in advance. This will help you feel more confident. You might also try practicing with a friend first.
Tell your boss what support you need, such as permission to leave a little early for a therapy appointment or some extra help on a project. Be as concrete as possible.
Be honest, but don’t feel the need to go into too much detail. All you need to tell them is a simple description of your depression diagnosis and what accommodations you need.
Remember that depression is one of the most common mental health disorders, so chances are your boss knows someone with depression (or may even have it themselves) and want to help.
What do you hope to gain by disclosing your depression?
Short answer: accommodations. Longer answer: accommodations that allow you to better perform your work duties while successfully managing your depression. The ultimate ask is up to you, but Harvard Business Review[v] suggests that managers consider the ideas below, depending on the individual’s need:
Allow a flexible schedule
Encourage collaboration with other employees
Simplify scope of work
Break up a large project into smaller ones that can be completed quickly
Share deadlines as needed [instead of piling-on]
Focus on wins
Frame assignments in terms of benefits
Know the strength of your employees and play to them
Provide access to psychiatric Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs)[vi]
Ask your insurance carrier about (adequate) mental health coverage.
Create a work-life balance strategy
Create and enforce a return-to-work policy
Managers: Look for These Common Signs of Depression[vii]
Depression is one of the most diagnosed mental illnesses in the world. Borne of more than mood but from genetic predisposition, childhood trauma, brain chemistry, hormones, chronic medical conditions, pain and even the weather – people with depression may exhibit a combination of the following symptoms:
Feeling agitated, irritable, visibly frustrated
Anxiety, agitation, or restlessness
Crying or teary eyes
Loss of motivation
Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
Reduced appetite and weight loss
Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
Fixating on past failures or self-blame
Trouble making decisions
Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
Remember that by helping your employees with depression, you’re not only helping your team and your company, you’re also demonstrating empathy and strong leadership skills, which are always welcome in a manager. That said, this is about the disclosing employee. Not you. It’s incumbent upon managers to ensure a safe environment for all of their employees, including those with mental health issues.
What Your Employees with Depression Want You to Know (But Don’t Want to Tell You):
Depression Can Be Physically Debilitating[viii]
When someone is that depressed, they can feel overwhelmed. Even the task of finding a therapist feels insurmountable and humiliating.
I’m utterly exhausted all the time.
Depression sucks up your energy – wherever you may find it. You might be eating right, drinking a healthy amount of caffeine and still feel the weight of depression bearing down on you like an elephant sitting on your heart.
I May or May Not Take Medications[ix]
And it’s really no one’s business but mine.
Reaching Out to Us Is a BIG Deal, Don’t Stop Trying[x]
“Reaching out and saying, ‘I care about you,’ makes a world of difference,” Andrea K. Wittenborn, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Michigan State University, told SELF Magazine.” It can take years for many people with depression to seek help. So letting them know that your door is open for whenever they feel comfortable talking can be crucial.[xi]
Don’t Tell Us “To Get Over It.”
Insensitivity, lack of empathy, jock mentality, call it what you will – it’s not helpful. If anything, it’s hurtful. Even the right meds and self-care can take a couple weeks or more to reveal their benefits.
There’s No Such Thing as a Cure for Depression.
Whether it’s antidepressants, exercise, talk therapy, or a blend of all of the above, there’s no panacea. Please don’t bring home remedies to me.
What Works for One of Us Doesn’t Work for All of Us.
This seems obvious but bears mentioning. The complexities of the mind are only now being understood at a superficial level. I wish what works for your Aunt could work for me too. Alas, we’re too different. Two different people, in fact.
Treating Depression Means More Than “Thinking Positive”
Although the right attitude can make a big impact, a person with depression may be suffering from a chemical imbalance in the brain that cannot be solved with the power of positive thinking.
Don’t Refer to “The Old Me”
If you knew me before my depression started, please don’t refer to me as “the old you,” meaning the un-depressed (happy?) version of myself. Basically, you’re saying the current me sucks and I’m certain that’s not your intent.
Laughter and Depression Aren’t Mutually Exclusive
There’s a reason they say it’s the best medicine…but don’t think because I laugh at a joke or smile at you that my depression has vanished into thin air. That’s not how it works.
When I say, “I’m fine,” I never mean it.
I appreciate you asking me how I’m doing. Even if I seemed angry or annoyed. I don’t want to burden you with the weight of my depression. That’s why I use perfunctory statements. It’s nothing personal.
Faking It ‘till you make it just makes you a better actor.
This is one of the worst concepts in modern psychology. Faking it makes me feel like a fake myself; go ahead and flush my self-worth why don’t you? I’d rather be authentically depressed and seeking treatment than wear a faux smile and make vapid small talk.
It takes me more effort to do normal tasks.
Until I’m myself again, I’m going to ask for your understanding. Perhaps even for a deadline extension. Even doing my best isn’t sufficient right now.
Don’t Try to Fix Me. I’ve Already Tried.
If I didn’t think we’d waste months and thousands of dollars (on top of what I’ve already spent), I’d let you take a crack and putting me back together again. Alas, this is who I am now.
You can’t cheer me up. Accept it.
You could be Jerry Seinfeld making hilarious giggle fodder of my ex-wife and mother-in-law or even one of those Baskin-Robbins ice cream cakes served by Miss America. It ain’t gonna happen.
My natural instinct to share is gone – I’m probably ashamed of my depression.[xii]
If you come over unannounced, B.Y.O.B. Seriously, if you want to talk about my depression, ask nicely. Then let’s do it behind closed doors.
If it takes me a while to explain what I’m feeling, don’t snap at me. Or guess what you think I’m going to say next. I’m just trying to collect my thoughts while processing the mess in my head.
Some call it brain fog. Others sleepy nebula. The concept is the same. My thoughts and intent are obscured by this thing called depression. Give me an espresso and a minute to catch up.
Taking Time Off for Mental Health Doesn’t Mean I Lose My Skills.
I can’t plan panic attacks. Sorry I missed the big meeting.
Cancelling plans at the last minute is one of the hallmarks of depression. This applies to work too. Feeling like the impending day will be an overwhelming, soul crusher of a slog, calling in sick at the last minute happens. Let me make it up.
If you haven’t heard from me in a while, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to you. Make the first move and send me an email.
If you work for a company of hundreds of people, you may not have daily contact with your supervisor. Nevertheless, the savvy manager will know who isn’t carrying their own water and want to know why. Otherwise, the employee might go unnoticed and feel even more depressed.
Depression chose me.
This isn’t my fault any more than your allergies or cigarette addiction are your fault. Besides, assigning blame won’t accomplish anything. Let’s move on to something more productive.
Even when I give 100%, I still feel inadequate.
And it goes without saying that my level of enthusiasm around the office has dropped far below the water line. This can frequently morph into imposter syndrome, which just drags me down deeper into the mire.
We’re grateful that you’re trying to help.
Thank you. In advance, just in case I forget to thank you after helping me. Even if I don’t appear grateful, I am. I need you…even if I can’t accept your help when it’s offered.
Please, don’t trivialize what I’m feeling.
I know there are people in the world who have it worse than I do. And, of course, my heart goes out the earthquake victims, refugees, and all the victims of social injustice. But that hurts too. Somehow, I find someone minimizing my problem is totally unhelpful.
I don’t expect you to fix me but be nice!
I do expect you to do your best to accommodate my depression so that I can perform optimally at work (or work from home) while still being treated like a valued employee. You have the power to improve my situation or make my work life hell. Please be kind.
Don’t be afraid to ask how I’m doing.
Just knowing that you’re concerned and take my mental health seriously can feel like a huge boon in these hard times. All I ask is that you do it when none of my co-workers are in listening distance.
What Harvard Thinks[xiii]
It’s important for managers to be aware that their best employees might be mentally ill. What’s more, sometimes those mental illnesses can drive employees to succeed beyond measure. For example, people with anxiety may be more driven to excellence. Those with bipolar disorder can be highly creative and have periods of tremendous productivity. Additionally, those with mental health conditions tend to have greater empathy for others' struggles, which can translate to strong management skills.
“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…and help the employee return as quickly as possible to full health.[xiv]
Addressing mental health at work results in major cost savings – to say nothing of the human psychological benefits. Approximately $17 billion[xv] is lost in productivity annually when organizations fail to support employees with mental health conditions. It manifests in leaves of absence, as well as in employee absenteeism and "presenteeism" (going to work without being productive). Acknowledgment of and support for mental health generates cost savings and higher morale, which can make your organization a more inclusive and desirable place to work.
By helping your employee with depression, you help your team, your company, and demonstrate strong leadership. Which is just another way of telling employers to behave like good civil citizens and treat their employees as the valuable, but perishable resources.
The Law Is On Your Side
Deciding to put your trust in your employer and disclosing your depression is a major, potentially career-altering decision. That’s why it’s important to consider all eventualities before deciding to disclose your depression status. The good news is that the law is on your side:
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s illegal for an employer with 15 or more employees to discriminate against an employee simply because they have a mental health condition. This includes firing you, rejecting you for a job or promotion, or forcing you to take leave.
Now that you’re fully informed and know your options, you should feel confident that you did your due diligence investigating depression, employment and accommodations. No one should ever lose their job to mental illness.
If you’ve had this experience with depression or any other mental illness, you’re welcome to share your story here.