Coaching Employees Out of a Depression Spiral

Version 2It was at least a year too late when I realized that my firing of a talented, once-energetic employee didn’t need to happen. Her bubbly, sarcastic wit had turned at times malicious. Her engaging personality became more frequently sullen and withdrawn. Work performance deteriorated after years of strength.

I didn’t know it then, but extremely difficult home circumstances triggered this woman into an episodic depression spiral, one she was not then equipped to pull herself from alone. Not knowing the circumstances, I mistook her poor results for apathy. I didn’t explore alternative explanations and enough options to restore her results. I failed her as a leader/manager. Remarkably, she has since forgiven my inability to discern the true situation and remains a personal friend today.

If any manager should have seen the symptoms of depression and known how to help, it should have been me. I had gone through several depressive cycles, the worst coming as a teen when my pain turned for long stretches to suicide ideation. But I had pulled out of these cycles through trial-and-error rather than a clinical understanding of my disease. I figured out which behavioral changes helped turn my spirals upward without knowing there was evidence that these were the right approaches for many.

I hid my disease for decades, fearful that acknowledging I sometimes struggled with depression would damage my career or cause others to avoid or, perhaps even worse, pity me. Once publicly acknowledged, I dove into researching mental health challenges as an author and volunteer for NoStigmas, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations.

What I’ve learned would have made me far more effective in several prior roles leading a global corporate team, a Washington, D.C. congressional office, and even back to long-ago days as editor-in-chief of a large college newspaper.

For managers, the struggle in managing a depressed employee starts with even recognizing the behavior.

There is no one-size-fits-all description. Some withdraw. Others act out. Some struggle with insomnia. Others sleep excessively. Some overeat. Others have no appetite. Most struggle to complete tasks they once found easy to master. Fortunately, you don’t need to diagnose the disease (and don’t need to know if an employee has been diagnosed) to help stop and reverse a downward spiral. You simply need to know that a once-valuable employee is struggling.

Depression does not limit an employee’s long-term mental capacity. Left uncontrolled, though, it affects an employee’s ability to deliver their best performance. As a leader/manager, taking actions to minimize how long an employee remains in a depressive phase helps your employee and your results.

For many, depression comes in and out of their lives. Brain chemistry imbalances and brain circuitry difficulties are comparable in challenge to some physical disabilities. An employee with diabetes, for example, can’t optimize work performance without carefully managing blood sugar. You may also encounter employees triggered into episodic depression who have no depression history. Often, they are unable to recognize or understand their current state. In any given year, the National Institute of Mental Health finds that nearly 7 percent of U.S. adults suffer from a major depressive episode.

Fortunately, for managers, many desired actions to help a struggling employee also help build a high-performance team. If a good employee struggles, first make sure they know about Employee Assistance Program options at your organization. Too often, depression is left untreated. Most people fear being labeled. They may also not realize the regularity of the challenge they face. EAP counseling can help an employee identify the disease and effective coping strategies.

What can you do as a leader/manager?

  • Surround the employee with good people. Minimizing contact with toxic, negative people is an important coping strategy for battling depression. Often, toxic people at work are difficult to escape. Having the right relationships matters. In his latest book, The Power of the Other, leadership expert and psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud writes that if work “relationships are positive, attuned, empathic, caring supporting, and challenging, then they cause positive development in the brain and increase performance capacities.” The way you interact with your employee can help or hurt. In business settings, Dr. Cloud notes that research has shown a six-to-one ratio of positive comments to criticisms is energizing to employees. When performance slips, managers often nearly reverse this ratio. Negativity accelerates a depressive decline.
  • Ensure the employee’s ability to address physical needs. Sleep, exercise, diet sunlight and even proper hydration play valuable roles in brain chemistry development. You might not see the initial impact of pushing employees to skip meals, constantly change shifts or work to exhaustion. Some can withstand unreasonable demands for long stretches, just as some can eat unhealthy diets without contracting diabetes or heart disease. But for some, ignoring physical needs creates tragic consequences. If you see an employee struggling to complete a task they normally master, consider ways to help beyond solving the immediate problem. Encourage a 10-minute walk outside. Move the brownies away from their cubicle. Consider, when possible, a schedule change better adapted to their natural sleep schedule.
  • Create Engaging, Achievable Goals. The first instinct of many in dealing with a depressed person is to back away. You might fear that an errant phrase could trigger the person over to suicide contemplation or worse. Backing away is the wrong answer. Engaging in a positive, supportive manner helps. Try to identify a project, a seminar or even a new responsibility that generates excitement for the employee (better yet if it puts them in touch with new, positive people). Make this effort and you might find the goal your team member needs to fight through the worst depressive days. Setting and achieving goals is proven to support mental health improvements in many depressed people. Impose enough expectations to ensure the struggling employee feels needed and valued.
  • Encourage Positive Thinking. Encouraging positivity in the face of depression requires conscious effort and repetition. Depression affects brain chemistry and circuitry, filtering interactions through a negative lens. The brain lens can be cleaned and modified. Practicing gratitude helps do this. To help a struggling employee, consider asking your entire team to identify the three best parts of their day. Insist that they come up with real, work relevant answers. This will be difficult at first for the depressed employee, but they will find it increasingly easier if you do it consistently over several weeks. You should also celebrate employee successes. Praise incremental progress. Remind them of prior work success. If you know others who value the struggling employee’s work, encourage them to say something positive too. These measures can provide a brain chemistry boost your employee needs to heal.
  • Help With Purpose Discovery. A basic human need is finding purpose and meaning in life, including at work. Spend time helping your employee identify value at work. For some, greater purpose comes from helping others or engaging in religious or spiritual reflection. It’s not your role to tackle religion, but you can create group community service projects. Assign a team of employees that includes your depressed employee to decide which group to support or projects to undertake. Then make sure you show up on project day and interact with your team and the employee in particular.
  • Give Them Time. Sometimes the most valuable gift a leader/manager can provide to an employee is time. Time to see a therapist. Time for a bit of mindfulness or meditation. Time to participate in a support group that may only meet during their work hours. Time to sleep. Most importantly, time to heal and return to being full-value work contributors.
  • Become Informed. As a leader/manager, you don’t need to understand medication and other treatment options. But learning more about non-medical methods of treating depression enables you to be a better-informed part of your employee’s support network. I’m a particular fan of books like The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb and The Depression Cure by Dr. Stephen Ilardi. There are also dozens of web sites with valuable, condensed information. WebMD, the Mayo Clinic, Psychology Today, and many others offer valuable insights.

Depression can be a chronic illness for some whose brain chemistry and circuitry requires more care to be fully functional than others need. But the effects of depression on work performance are often overcome with the right support and encouragement.

As a leader/manager, recognize that your great employee didn’t disappear after triggering into a depressive episode or stretch. They simply lost contact with their most productive selves, a contact you can help reestablish.

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