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Depression in the Pandemic Workplace: What We Can Do

Depression in the Pandemic Workplace: What We Can Do

By Bob VandePol, MSW

October is National Depression Awareness Month.

The pandemic and all the ensuing uncertainty and disruption in our lives, communities and globally has fueled a surge of individuals reporting depression symptoms. Some surveys report as many as three times more than in a normal year. Before the pandemic, depression was already one of the top reasons for lost productivity, sick days taken and disability leave.

Not only does depression affect the individual person, it also touches everyone in their family and their workplace. Unaddressed depression in the workplace can contribute to lower morale and profits as well as increase mistakes and accidents.

Ignoring depression is not an option. Rather than be bystanders, everyone in the workplace can help to address this issue. However, during the pandemic, we may need to be more proactive.

Understanding Depression Symptoms

Depression is a serious medical illness of the brain that affects a person’s mood, concentration, activity level, interests, appetite, social behavior and physical health. Although depression is treatable, oftentimes it is a lifelong condition with periods of wellness alternating with depressive recurrences. By understanding the warning signs, we can help employees and coworkers seek treatment sooner, so that they need not suffer needlessly.

You may be depressed if you have at least five of these symptoms occurring nearly every day for at least two weeks:

  • Feeling sad or empty
  • Having little interest or pleasure in doing things
  • Experiencing a change in appetite with weight loss or weight gain
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much
  • Being tired, fatigued and having no energy
  • Feeling worthless or guilty that you have let yourself or your family down
  • Moving slowly or the opposite – being overly fidgety and restless
  • Having difficulty thinking or concentrating on things such as reading the newspaper or watching TV
  • Letting personal hygiene go – not bathing or not dressing well
  • Recurring thoughts of hurting yourself

Depression Symptoms You May Notice in the Workplace

  • Unfinished projects
  • Increased errors
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Indecisive
  • Missing work
  • Tired all the time
  • Unexplained aches and pains
  • Loss of interest in work or safely socializing with colleagues
  • Irritable or emotional outbursts
  • Posing safety risks, accidents
  • Increased alcohol and/or drug use

Why a Person Might Not Seek Help

Most people with depression symptoms want help, but some barrier is holding them back. Many are unaware they have depression; they just know they feel sick, tired and not themselves. Others may not know how to ask for help or are too fatigued to be proactive. Some may fear losing their job or career opportunities, cost or have confidentiality concerns.

What You Can Do Proactively

Create a culture that endorses help-seeking behavior, where people can “be ok not being ok” with confidence that support, self-care, and treatment can help them thrive again. Some of the action you and leadership can take to promote this culture includes:

  • Communicating often, being as transparent as possible and answering questions will help reports feel less anxious and build trust.
  • Be honest about your own struggles.
  • Check in routinely with all reports; ask how they are doing.
  • Model healthy self-care behaviors and encourage reports and colleagues to do the same.
  • Ask reports what they need to do their job; be flexible so they can meet goals.
  • Point out the accomplishments of your team and individuals—even the smaller ones.

What You Can Do to Help When You Notice Symptoms

  • Talk to the person in private about what you’ve noticed.
  • Encourage them to use your company’s confidential EAP (Employee Assistance Program) which is usually free, or make an appointment with their primary care doctor or a trained behavioral health professional.
  • Let them know depression is a very treatable illness, not a failing on their part.
  • If concerned about discrimination or privacy, let them know depression is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
  • Support their treatment plan.
  • Reassure them they will feel better.
  • Be a good listener.
  • Learn more about depression and its symptoms.

More Your Organization Can Do

If you’re in leadership or management, there’s much you can do to support your employees with depression.

  1. Empower your staff so they can understand and recognize depression by providing a brochure, links on your company intranet and/or staff training.
  2. Encourage all employees to practice good self-care and manage their stress!
  3. Promote national depression screening day.
  4. Provide an Employee Assistance Program if you don’t already have one. If you do, promote this benefit regularly.

Depression Information

For more information about depression, visit these resources:

Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services

American Psychiatric Association

Anxiety and Depression Association of American

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)


Resilience Strategies During the PandemicBob VandePol, MSW, serves as Executive Director of the Pine Rest Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Prior to joining Pine Rest, he was president of the world’s largest provider of critical incident response services to the workplace. Active as a keynote speaker, Mr. VandePol has published and been quoted in business and clinical journals, co-authored book chapters addressing workplace response to tragedy and has been featured as subject matter expert in numerous video training series. Mr. VandePol can be contacted at 616.258.7549 or bob.vandepol@pinerest.org

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