How to talk about depression at work

Sunday 17 September 2017
Opening up about mental health in the workplace can be hard, but we can help to make that difficult conversation manageable with these approaches…
Light coming through a cave


According to research by GOV UK, one in six UK-based employees have reported having a mental health condition, and statistics published by Business in the Community (BITC) show that three in five employees experience mental health issues because of work. With 7.6% of sick days in the UK represented by stress, anxiety, or depression-related absences, it’s time we all took steps to open up the conversation around mental health at work.

CMI ran a survey to mark Time to Talk day, which found that 51% of senior managers and 44% of junior managers have never had training on mental health in the workplace. This can only lead to these already difficult conversations about depression and other mental health issues even harder. Without the appropriate training, it can be difficult to know the language or terms to use, the appropriate measures to put in place, or the support to offer – but we’re here to help. Work is inextricably linked to your mental health – whether this is due to an ‘always on’ culture, feeling stressed by your workload, or even feeling unmotivated or unchallenged at work – so whatever level you are in your company, here are some ways to approach the conversation.

If you're asking for help…

If you’re experiencing a period of depression whilst at work, consider letting your line manager or a trusted colleague know. Try to avoid creating more stress for yourself by hiding it, which can compound your feelings and, potentially, lead you to burn out. Your line manager will be able to support you through this time. Before you approach your line manager, have a think about what you would find helpful from your employer during this time. It may be a period of extended absence, reduced or remote working hours, or to take on fewer projects or responsibilities. You’ll know best how you can make it through to the other side, so try to be explicit in what you need.

“Putting mental health first is a mindset. High performing people are people who are cared for and who care for themselves. Mental health and high performance work together,” says Simon Blake OBE, CEO of Mental Health First Aid England. Remember that although your job is important, your own health is moreso. Prioritise taking care of yourself, even if that means having conversations or making lifestyle changes you’d rather avoid, such as reducing your use of social media or no longer working on weekends to ‘catch up’ on work you feel overwhelmed by during this time.

If you're offering support to an employee…

“As a manager and leader, the first step in supporting the mental health of your team is to model good behaviour. Think about how this will help people to be well, to help them deliver and to ensure they are successful,” says Simon Blake OBE.

Think about what you as a manager can reasonably offer to a person going through a period of mental ill-health. This may mean enquiring with HR or your own manager about flexible working hours, revisiting the company’s statutory sick pay rules, and delegating their current projects or shifts to other team members. Think about scheduling regular check-in meetings with this employee; these can double as a status check for both projects and their own personal health. Support them through actions, as well as a sympathetic ear.

Ann Francke, CEO of CMI, says that: "Line managers play an absolutely critical role in supporting employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Employers are already required by law to provide training on physical health and safety; it’s time the same requirements applied to mental health.”

If you're addressing the entire company…

“Often, managers are best-placed to spot changes in behaviour and performance that might be a sign that someone is experiencing mental ill health, so it stands to reason they should be trained to respond confidently and support their colleagues,” says Simon Blake OBE.

Investing in training your managers and employees in mental health best practice is a vital tool in raising awareness, initiating conversations, and eradicating discrimination. This training also presents the opportunity to review your mental health policies and see how you can be more inclusive for all types of invisible illnesses and conditions. Demystify exactly what depression is, when it’s best to seek medical help (the NHS will be a useful resource here) and detail how the company offers support. Lloyds Bank has been proactive in how it handles mental health issues, and you may find this case study useful.

In all circumstances, remember that this is a difficult topic and a complicated issue, so use your words carefully. If necessary, work with professional advisers and organise training through the Mental Health Foundation. It is against The Equality Act 2010 to discriminate against those with mental health issues, so make sure that in all instances you are providing support and not excluding those seeking help while at work. If you are going through a period of depression, advice can be found on the NHS.

Read our article that explores the links between mental health and technology here, using data from our survey of 950 managers.

Image: Unsplash