Depression in the Workplace: Tips for Managers

Image for depression at work articleDepression is a mental illness characterized by feelings of profound sadness and lack of interest in enjoyable activities. It may cause a wide range of symptoms, both physical and emotional. Depression is not the same as a blue mood, nor is it a personal weakness; it is a major, but treatable illness. Depression can last for weeks, months, or years. People with depression may recover without treatment. However, the longer depression lasts and the more times it recurs, the more likely it is that treatment will prove necessary.

Causes of Depression

The precise cause of depression is not known. Causes may be genetic, emotional, physical, environmental, or any combination of these, including:

  • Stressful life events
  • Chronic stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Imbalances in brain chemicals and hormones
  • Lack of control over circumstances
  • Negative thought patterns and beliefs
  • Chronic pain
  • Chronic disease
  • Heart disease and heart surgery

Symptoms of Depression in the Workplace

Symptoms of depression are highly variable from person to person. Some people have only a few symptoms, while others have many. Symptoms may also vary over time. In the workplace, symptoms of depression often may be recognized by:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Morale problems
  • New difficulties with coworkers and customers
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Absenteeism
  • Frequent statements about being tired all the time
  • Problems with concentration
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

Treatment Options

Treatment of depression usually includes medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the 2. The medications help relieve symptoms, while psychotherapy helps employees learn more effective ways of dealing with problems or identifying and resolving the conflicts contributing to their depression.

Next Steps

Clinical depression can be treated successfully. The key to recovery is that symptoms be recognized early and that employees get the treatment they need. Many companies are helping their employees with depression by providing training on depressive illnesses for supervisors, access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), and access to occupational health personnel. Such efforts may contribute to significant reductions in lost time and job-related accidents as well as marked increases in productivity.

Here is what you can do:

  • Learn about depression and the sources of help that are available.
  • Recognize when an employee shows signs of a problem affecting performance that may be depression-related. Refer employees appropriately.
  • Discuss changes in work performance with the employee. You may suggest that the employee seek professional help if there are personal concerns. Assure the employee that all conversations will be kept in the strictest confidence.
  • If an employee voluntarily talks with you about these health problems, including feeling depressed or down all the time, keep these points in mind:
    • Do not try to diagnose the problem yourself.
    • Recommend that any employee experiencing symptoms of depression seek professional help from an employee assistance program (EAP) counselor or other health or mental health professional.
    • Recognize that a depressed employee may need a flexible work schedule during treatment. Find out about your company’s policy by contacting your human resources specialist.
    • Remember that severe depression may be life-threatening to the employee. If an employee makes suicidal comments, take the threats very seriously. Call an EAP counselor or other specialist right away and seek advice on how to handle the situation.
    • While depressed persons are at much greater risk of harming themselves than others, take any threats against others seriously and seek professional advice quickly. This is particularly true if a threat involves a family member, since spouses and children are among the most common homicide victims of depressed individuals.

The Good News

Successful treatment of depression enables people with the disease to return to satisfactory, functioning lives, and nearly everyone who undergoes treatment gets some degree of relief. With early recognition, intervention, and support, most employees can overcome their depression and pick up their lives and careers where they left off.


Mental Health America

National Institute of Mental Health


Canadian Psychiatric Association

Canadian Psychological Association


Major depressive disorder (MDD). EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: Updated January 23, 2017. Accessed May 4, 2017.

Depression basics. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at: Updated 2016. Accessed May 4, 2017.

Depression in the workplace. Mental Health America website. Available at: Accessed May 4, 2017.

Depression in the workplace. University of Michigan Depression Center. Available at: Accessed May 4, 2017.

Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP  Last Updated: 7/1/2015