Depression at Work
Don’t Wait Till It’s Too Late To Address Issues
By Mark Swartz
Canadian Workplace Specialist
There’s a terrible thing happening in the shadows of Paris, city of lights: a wave of workplace suicides has struck France Telecom. 20 employees have taken their own lives in the past 18 months, often leaving notes that cite job stress and misery at work.
This is a tragedy of great magnitude. Imagine the impact on your organization if one of your employees ended their life suddenly, implicating work conditions as a cause. Likely it would create grief and seriously harm morale. In the worst case, it could spur copycat suicides –
something that’s far more common than you might have thought (it’s why newspapers and related media think twice about mentioning suicide as the reason for someone’s unexpected demise).
Spotting The Signs of Depression at Work
It’s not always possible to detect if someone is on the path to self-elimination. For instance, Canadian radio DJ Martin Streek, who worked for Toronto’s 102.1 FM (The Edge) over a period of two decades, was let go in a round of downsizing and took his own life two months later. Yet by all accounts he was upbeat right up to the end, confident of finding new work.
Most people who are considering suicide are in tremendous emotional pain for a while before they commit the act. Close to 70% actually tell another person their intentions beforehand. A potential suicide may display some, all or none of the following changes at work:
– taking more time off than usual or missing deadlines
– giving away items of personal importance
– getting their affairs in order (preparing a will)
– speaking extremely negatively about themselves, e.g. “The world will be better off without me.”
Suicide and Depression
There is a strong link between a person being clinically depressed and being at risk for committing suicide. Depression is a medical illness that frequently leaves the sufferer feeling constantly worthless and terribly sad for no good reason, even though things might actually be going quite well in their life. It’s a condition requiring treatment by a trained medical professional, not a “pull up your socks and get back into the game” pep talk.
You can generally notice if a person becomes seriously Depressed. Let’s say that Johanna in your Marketing department is normally outgoing and a spiffy dresser. Over time you begin to notice that her natural energy has decreased, she speaks slower than she used to, appears to have trouble concentrating during meetings, is now ordering excess amounts of food at lunch with you, it looks like she hasn’t combed her hair for a few days, and she no longer talks about her hobbies or other things that used to interest her.
Johanna is very likely experiencing extreme stress of one kind or another. Whether it’s a troubled relationship, a health setback, financial difficulties, alcohol or drug dependency, or some sort of mood disorder such as Depression, an intervention may well be necessary.
The Workplace Intervention
Before you approach a distressed employee who you think may be at serious risk of suicide or other self-harm, consult your HR policies with regard to these matters. Are there specific instructions about how to handle a situation like this? If not, have a look at the list of distress centres in your local area. You might try calling a suicide prevention helpline and asking for advice on how to proceed. This also gives you contact information that you can pass on to the distressed person at the appropriate time.
Book an appointment with the distressed employee where he or she can speak openly and confidentially. You may want to have a representative from your HR department present, or someone from the external Employee Assistance Program if your organization uses one. The idea is to let the distressed person know that they are a valued part of the team, and that you (or others) have noticed some significant changes in this person’s behaviour and/or appearance lately; you are here today to help her in any way you can so that things improve for all.
Give the person information they can use to reach out for help…from a physician, therapist, religious source, nearby distress centers, suicide prevention line, an Employee Assistance Program, self-help groups (for things like mood disorders, alcohol or drug abuse, anger management, grief counselling, etc.) Be supportive and positive. Offer to work as partners with the employee and tell them that you will do what you can to ensure that their job is not in jeopardy so long as the they get help and begin to turn things around.
Is It Better To Be Silent?
Perhaps you think that a better way to deal with a potentially suicidal employee is to not say a word, hoping that the situation will somehow improve on its own; or maybe you believe that it’s none of your business to involve yourself in an employee’s “personal” life (as if we completely leave our personal lives outside the front door of our office each weekday morning).
Know this: a positive intervention at the right time can make the difference between a healthy outcome and devastating tragedy. But a clumsy intervention, where you shine a spotlight on the employee, make them feel like they’re in danger of losing their job, and offer no tools or information that might give that person a lifeline, might well be worse than doing nothing at all.
Please, use your judgment wisely here. You CAN do something to help turn a life around. It may be well out of your comfort zone to engage a distressed employee. Consider, though, how wonderful it will feel when a dire situation eventually becomes manageable again and the previously troubled employee is back operating at their peak!