If you haven’t experienced depression yourself, it can be hard to know how to provide practical, tangible support to a valued team member who discloses that they’re struggling with this mental health challenge.
The first step is always the same: Just Listen.
Step out of your manager:employee roles for a moment, and just be one human listening to another human who is struggling. Remember that telling you this is probably incredibly humiliating for the person. They already feel awful about themselves, and now they’re sharing a private, excruciating truth that they were hoping they could hide.
You don’t need to go into solution mode. Just listen, empathize and show them you’re not judging them.
Once you’ve done this, it might then be appropriate to move into demonstrating your practical support. “Is there things we could do here at work that would help you get through this?”
If they’re open to accepting some help, listed below are five strategies that might be beneficial whilst the team member tries to navigate their way back to health.
Ultimately, it is not up to you to solve anything, or tell them what they need to do; but showing them you’re willing to be flexible while they get through this challenge can be incredibly helpful. For me, it reassured me that I was a valued member of the team; that my boss thought I was worthwhile, even if I didn’t feel it myself.
1. Negotiate reduced hours or days for a fixed period
Is there a discrete aspect of the person’s role that could be temporarily handled by colleagues? If so, it may enable the option of doing reduced days or hours for a fixed period.
Depression is a stable state; it sustains itself. You feel depressed so you don’t sleep well; but not sleeping well perpetuates the depression. You feel depressed so you don’t exercise; but being sedentary perpetuates the depression. In other words, unless an intervention or change occurs, the person can remain in a depressed state indefinitely.
By cutting back work hours for a period, time is freed up to do some of the critical things that will help on the road to recovery. Counselling. Regular exercise. Rest.
Ideally, the time-frame should be negotiated with advice from a counsellor.
Under such guidance, I cut back from a 5-day week to a 3-day week for 8 weeks. I followed the schedule the counsellor helped me design and by the end of the 8 weeks I was ready to resume my full-time role. For me, this was far more effective than just taking a few weeks off work; because a balanced life that included work was part of my road to recovery.
2. Permit them to work from a private office or meeting room (rather than the open plan environment).
When you’re depressed, it takes an inordinate amount of energy to look normal.
Our external facial expressions and posture naturally reflect our internal state; and our internal state is that we want to fall on the floor, curl up, and (sometimes) cry. By creating a private space for your team member, you remove one more drain on their energy; the demand to ‘look normal’. Let them know they can shut the door; close the blinds; and do their work without having to worry about faking ‘how they look’.
An alternative is to permit them to work from home; the effectiveness of this will depend on what is going to help with recovery (hence why a counsellor’s guidance is useful). When I was depressed, part of my recovery was being around people; when I stayed at home I usually ended up in bed. For others, working from home a day or two a week can be extremely beneficial.
3. Offer to proof-read some of their work
A common symptom of depression is that your cognitive abilities are impaired. Processing information, making decisions, organising your thoughts into words; all these previously simple things become challenging. It’s a bit like going from broadband internet, back to dial up speed; your capacity is still there, but it slows right down.
I had a CEO agree to proof-read important documents before I sent them out. He barely had to make a change…. but because I knew my cognitive abilities weren’t so sharp, just knowing someone was running their eye over my work was incredibly reassuring.
Ask your team member if they need you to run your eye over things or help them nut out work problems more than you normally would; and let them know you are happy to do this while they’re trying to get back on an even keel.
4. Get team members to screen calls and take messages
The impaired cognitive abilities mentioned above means that being ‘put on the spot’ can be quite scary when you’re depressed. The phone ringing can be terrifying. What if someone asks you a question and you can’t think straight? What if your cover is blown?
If you can remove the element of surprise, it gives the person with depression more time to get their thoughts clear before they talk to someone. I had colleagues answer my calls, then send me an email message summarising what the call was about. That way when I rang back, I was on the front foot and had already prepared what I planned to say.
5. Be upfront about what YOU need and expect
I’m a HR Manager by profession, so (in addition to my lived experience), I’ve worked with many colleagues over the years who have been struggling with mental health issues.
One thing I’ve learnt is that the easiest people to help are those who ‘keep their end of the deal’. Even in their struggle, they realise that a supportive employer deserves honesty and respect.
Have an honest conversation where you are clear about how you’re willing to help, and what you need in return. For example, you might work in an industry where you need at least 2 hours’ notice if the team member isn’t going to make it to work that day. So tell them that! “I am 100% on board with supporting you through this time. What I need from you though, is a commitment to let me know by 7am if you’re not going to make work that day. I want you to ring me (not text me), and I want you to tell me the true reason you can’t make it, even if that is to say “I’m really bad today”.
I have personally used strategies 1 to 4 above when I’ve been unwell and asked my employer to help me through my recovery.
Without exception, every single boss agreed to help me.
Why has my success rate been so high? I’m pretty sure that it was because I also committed to strategy 5. I was upfront; I owned my issue; I kept my part of the bargain.
One person’s experience of depression is different from another persons, and so are the things that will help them at work.
This list is not exhaustive…it is a work in progress!
What other strategies have you found helpful?