Monday, April 28, 2014

How & Why Managers Must Deal With a Depressed Employee

Read time 5 minutes.

Listen for: "I'm thinking about ending it!" signals.

Managers -- Do not, Ever! Try to counsel a depressed employee. Work with her or him to get outside help. Talk with a professional about how to do that.

Managers -- be as empathetic as you can be but do not expect a positive response. You are just trying to stabilize the situation until the person gets help.

Danger: Some depressed people can turn their self-loathing and despair into killing.

Be aware that: a depressed person is dis-engaged from self and others. They are very hard to make authentic contact with.

Here's what it can hear like:

"I don't feel myself." "I feel sad, empty, and hopeless." "Why can't i shake off these feelings?" I am feeling anxious, panicked or distressed by troubling thoughts." "I am doing things that i feel bad about." "I can't sleep." "I want to sleep all the time." "I'm tired." "I can't concentrate." "I'm tired all the time."

In the workplace, the person's social relationships and job functions are negatively impaired by their depressive cloud. In some occupations the depressed person is a danger to self and others.

We sometimes see depression-like symptoms when a person has suffered a major loss as in a death, divorce, or even loss of savings. These instances are not what I would judge to be depression. They are natural, normal responses to a major life crisis. Deflation is not depression. The person may need help to get through it. Most likely it is situational. Most often you can still engage with the person. They will respond to empathy and be "contactable."

So what's a manager to do with a depressed employee?

First, a not-to-do! Do not abdicate your managerial responsibilities and say nothing to him or her hoping it will pass. A manager must call attention (in private) to the employee's behaviours.

1. State what you are observing. Only describe behaviours. "I notice that..." keep it short.

2. After you have described the behaviours. Button up. Do not talk. Wait! It may take what seems to be an eternity for a depressed employee to respond. Waiting for her/him to do so is a must. If you start talking they will retreat further inside. I have sat with someone for 10 minutes in silence waiting for him to respond.

3. When they do say something and when they are finished, repeat back what you heard them say, "So what you're saying is... did I get it correctly?"

  • If "No, that's not it." Ask them to say it again. Very often a depressed person will have trouble articulating their situation.

  • If "Yes," then.

You move into S.E.T. Interaction.

S.E.T. - S.upport, E.mpathy, T.ruth - is a three-step system of move-to-action intervention.

During interactions with a depressed employee you should invoke all three of these elements.


The "S" stage of this system. S.upport, is a personal statement of concern. "I am sincerely worried about how you are feeling" is an example of a supportive statement.

The emphasis is not on the manager's own feelings.

It is a personal statement to try to be of help.


with the E.mpathy segment, you attempt to acknowledge the depressed employee's shut down feelings: "How awful you must be feeling..."

It is important not to confuse Empathy with sympathy ("I feel so sorry for you..."), which will elicit either anger or withdrawal over perceived condescension.

Express your empathy in a neutral way with minimal personal reference to your own feelings. The emphasis here is on the employee's pain, not the manager's dilemma.

If the manager says, "I know just how bad you are feeling" it is likely to invite a mocking retort that, indeed, "You could never know how I feel!" and only results in the employee's despair. That statement can also be made non-verbally with a disdainful flick of the eyes.

Next, the "T" statement, representing T.ruth or Reality...

emphasizes that the employee is ultimately responsible for his/her work commitments and that others' attempts to help cannot pre-empt this primary responsibility.

While S.upport and E.mpathy are subjective statements acknowledging feelings, Truth statements announce that a problem exists. The manager addresses the practical issue of what can be done to solve it.

"We need to do something about it." is one essential T.ruth response.

Another useful T.ruth expression refers to actions that the manager is going to take in response to the depressed employee's behaviours, which is best expressed in a matter-of-fact, neutral fashion is:

"Here's what happened... "
"These are the consequences... "
"This is what I can do to help...
"What are you going to do?"

They should be stated in a way that avoids blaming and sadistic punishing ("This is a fine mess you've gotten us into!" "We've got work to do, snap out of it!").

The T.ruth part of the S.E.T. interaction is key. It is also the most difficult for the employee to hear and accept since so much of his/her world excludes or rejects engagement.

4. Be Clear, Engage and Hold Firm.

Communication with the depressed person needs to include all three messages - S.upport, E.mpathy and T.ruth.

However, even if all three parts are enacted, the depressed employee may not integrate all of them. Defensive, dis-engaging responses result when one of these levels is either not clearly stated or is not "heard."

It is now time, then, to call in the professional.

No comments:

Post a Comment