The Depressed Worker: Lesser-Known Aspects of Mental Illness

- Monday, October 17, 2016



We understand that for busy employers, time and energy are definitely limited resources. Regularly spread thin by the demands of customers, suppliers and employees, it can certainly be difficult to notice the finer goings-on of the everyday workplace. 

For this reason, human resource issues such as depression and other mental illnesses in the workplace can sometimes be difficult to spot. Add to this the clichés that attach to how depression ‘looks’ and employers could find themselves left with a staff problem that snowballs over time. After dispelling some of the myths about employee depression, we examine some lesser-known features of this and other challenging illnesses

‘Always sad’ and other misconceptions of depression

One of the key problems with the word ‘depression’ is that it has been co-opted into describing a range of non-medical human experiences. From bored to grieving to heart-broken, people often describe themselves and others as being “so depressed!” 

This is not to say that being sad, crying or appearing forlorn are not cause for concern to an employer. And if the worker who is ‘always sad’ begins to show other signs of depression – or appears unable to shake the melancholy - then employers might do well to privately and sensitively check in with the worker. 
But generally - it’s just not a simple matter of ‘sadness’.
Lesser-known aspects of depression
One group of depressive symptoms reflects the deeply physiological nature of this unforgiving illness. Unlike emotions, these symptoms are tied to the way the clinically-depressed brain begins to alter physical and mental functioning. Outward signs can include a disturbed appetite, concentration difficulties, fatigue, loss of interest in activities, a slowing or speeding of physical movement and/or sleep disturbance. Thus, a clinically depressed worker might exhibit any number of uncharacteristic behaviours. Window-gazing, forgetting crucial meetings or technical details, dozing at lunch, talking faster and louder than usual and/ or rapidly losing weight in a short period of time are just some of the many and varied manifestations of true depression.
What is uncharacteristic?
It is well-known that employers need to look out for persisting illness across at least two weeks to be sure that depression is a likely reality for the worker in question. But how many of us simply look for typical sadness? As we can already see, the physiological changes wrought by the illness are such that employers might well be missing key information about their workforce. One key observation is unusual change. 

When your usually ‘gun’ salesperson continuously forgets to take crucial projections with them or can’t find the words to explain to customers the benefits of a core product – then depression’s feature of lost concentration might be an insidious cause. If your usual early bird is not only unable to catch the worm, but in fact has spent weeks slumping into their chair at 10am each morning, then physiological sleep disturbance and fatigue might be flowing from a typical clinical depression.
Other unforgiving illnesses
There is so much crucial information to get our heads around when it comes to supporting workers with mental illness. Another huge thief of health and productivity in Australia is clinical anxiety. This too comes with its fair share of clichés around simply being ‘worried’ or ‘nervous’. Once more, deeper physiological factors can be at play with anxiety than might first meet the eyes. Fast speech, irritability, bolting from rooms and failing to meet deadlines are just some of the troubling symptoms facing those with one of the clinical anxiety disorders.
Knowledge is power
Becoming a workplace knowledge-base and champion of mental health is a proven way for employers to engage and retain loyal workers. And by understanding that troubling behaviours are stemming from a diagnosable illness, employers are much less likely to blame laziness or selfishness for a worker’s underperformance. 

Without this crucial knowledge, the danger of harassment or discrimination claims being made by the mentally ill worker can loom on the horizon. Before things escalate, contact a professional in these areas to help you investigate the mental health ‘climate’ of your workplace.

In getting to know the more subtle and damaging aspects of depression, anxiety and other employee illnesses, employers can identify and help their workers before a small health challenge grows into a complex workplace difficulty.

You can also speak with a professional confidentially on the new Whistleblower Hotline service.


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