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Depression at Work

The suicide of actor Robin Williams, who reportedly was suffering from severe depression, is a harsh reminder of how devastating the illness can be.

While Williams was certainly a unique individual, his battle with depression was not unique. Indeed, each year about 25 million U.S. adults experience major depressive disorder, according to the National Institute of Mental Disorders.

Because major depression is one of the most common mental disorders in the U.S., it is imperative that employers and supervisors know what to do if employees reveal they have the disorder (or something similar) or if it appears that they do.

Employees who reveal that they suffer from depression are probably doing so because they need some time off work or other accommodation to manage their illness. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act requires employers with five or more employees to provide a reasonable accommodation to employees whose illness makes the performance of a major life activity difficult. Major life activities include physical activities (breathing, walking, hearing, seeing), mental activities (thinking, communicating), social activities (interacting with others), and working.

Employers and supervisors may request that the employee provide medical certification to substantiate that an accommodation is needed. Once that’s provided, they need to engage in what is called the interactive process with the employee to determine what the employee might need in order to continue to perform his or her essential job duties. Although the preferences of the employee should be considered, the accommodation implemented should be one that is most appropriate for the employer as well as the employee. (For more information, see “Disability Under the Fair Employment and Housing Act: What You Should Know About the Law” at

Additionally, employees needing time off of work because of depression might be eligible for Family Medical Leave if they work for an employer with 50 or more employees.

Employers and supervisors who suspect that an employee is depressed because of a decline in performance or a change in the employee’s behavior (such as lack of cooperation, absenteeism, irritability, excessive crying) should schedule a meeting with the employee and follow a format like this (based on “How to Talk to a Depressed Employee” by Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D.):

1. State your concern for the employee. “Robin, I want to talk to you because I’m concerned about you.”
2. Talk about observable behavior. “You missed several important deadlines over the past two weeks.”
3. Acknowledge the change in behavior. “That’s just not like you.”
4. Encourage action. “If things in your personal life are affecting you, we have a confidential employee assistance program that you can call.” Or, if your company doesn’t have an EAP, “you might want to talk to a professional about it.”
5. Be sympathetic, but limit the conversation if the employee begins to reveal personal information.
6. Reinforce your concern. “I really want to help you get back on track.”
7. Reinforce the need for performance improvement. “It’s up to you whether you seek professional help or not, but I still need for you to meet your deadlines.”

While the last line above might sound harsh, it is important that employees know that suffering from a mental illness does not excuse them from having to meet performance standards. It also might be the impetus that they need to seek help.

Finally, employers and supervisors should know that discrimination against applicants and employees because of mental disabilities (or perceived disabilities) is unlawful and that any information about such disabilities must remain confidential.

Depression can be devastating. However, with the right treatment, it can be managed and worked around. Getting the right treatment is up to the employee. Helping the employee work around it (with reasonable accommodations and performance discussions) is up to the employer.

Disclaimer: The information and resources provided herein are not a substitute for experienced legal counsel and does not constitute legal advice or attempt to address the numerous factual issues that inevitably arise in any employment-related dispute. Although this information attempts to cover some major recent developments, it is not all-inclusive, and any recommendations are based upon HR best practices and procedures. We recommend you consult an attorney for legal guidance.

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