Helping an Employee Who’s Going Through Depression

Last Updated: May 16, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Depression in the workplace is a problem that employers may have to address. Research shows that in a given year, about 17.3 million American adults, or around 7.1% of the adult population, will experience an episode of depression. While New Jersey may be the second least-depressed state in the country, employers may still encounter depression at work due to the high prevalence of this condition. Knowing how to support employees with depression is a necessary part of doing business.

What Is Depression?

In everyday language, people may use the term “depression” to refer to someone who is sad after a breakup or a loved one’s death. While it is normal to feel grief or sadness after a loss, depression in the workplace often refers to someone who is suffering from clinical depression.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is a serious mental health disorder that often involves the following symptoms:

  • Ongoing sad mood
  • Feeling hopeless, helpless or worthless
  • Having trouble concentrating or making decisions
  • Low energy levels and feelings of fatigue
  • Lack of interest in activities a person once found enjoyable
  • Changes in sleep habits, such as oversleeping or having difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in eating habits or weight
  • Thoughts of death or suicide attempts

There are various types of depression. A person may have persistent depressive disorder, in which they experience a depressed mood that lasts two or more years. A person with persistent depressive disorder may have periods when their depression is less severe. Women may also experience postpartum depression after giving birth, and some people suffer from seasonal depression, which occurs in the winter when there is a lack of sunlight. Depressed moods can also occur as part of bipolar disorder, in which a person swings between depression and an elevated mood state called mania.

While feelings of sadness after a death or breakup may interfere with a person’s functioning at work, these situations typically result in temporary sadness that improves with time. In contrast, clinical depression is a serious, ongoing mental health condition. When a person feels worthless, has difficulty concentrating, suffers from fatigue and loses interest in their usual activities, this can understandably affect their work performance.

Clinical depression has various potential causes. It can be the result of genetic factors, major life stressors, trauma or physical illnesses. Research also suggests that depression seems to involve an imbalance of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters within the brain. As such, it is a legitimate health condition.

Legal Considerations

If you notice an employee’s job performance is suffering because of depression, you have a right to be concerned. An employee who fails to fulfill their duties or is often absent from work can harm the company or organization and their own well-being.

That being said, you should not assume that a struggling employee has depression. If you notice that an employee’s job performance is suffering and you suspect they might be depressed, avoid telling them they have depression. Only a qualified medical or mental health professional can make this diagnosis. You may also offend the employee if you label them with a particular condition.

Keep in mind that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits harassment based on a mental health condition like depression in the workplace. If you make statements about an employee being depressed, this could contribute to workplace gossip, which could ultimately be seen as harassment.

Approaching an Employee About Depression

Be sure to approach the topic with empathy and concern. You may say, “You have had five successful years at the company, but I have noticed lately that your attendance has been sporadic, and you haven’t been turning in reports on time. I am concerned. Is there something going on that is preventing you from performing as well as you normally do?”

By law, an employee may choose to remain private about their depression, but if you have evidence that they can’t do their job or pose a threat to the workplace, you may ask questions about mental health. Understand, though, that if an employee discloses depression, you cannot discriminate against them or fire them simply because they’re depressed. You must also provide them with reasonable accommodations that would allow them to perform their job. This could include an altered work schedule to attend counseling or a private office space that helps them concentrate.

Assisting Remote Workers Who Are Depressed

Assisting employees with depression may be even more necessary in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research shows that depression has increased over threefold since before the pandemic began.

Depression can be a reality for workers who have been forced to work from home and cope with social isolation. Employees who once worked in an office setting with access to coworkers for emotional support may find themselves feeling lonely when working from home. This can cause depression and worsen symptoms for those who are already vulnerable to depression.

Fortunately, there are ways to support remote workers dealing with depression, including:

Private communication lines

This can be a messaging system or phone line that connects employees to someone from human resources. This allows them to have an outlet outside of company email or Zoom meetings to reach out to someone at the office.

Relaxing workplace policies

You may allow remote workers to disregard the usual dress code or work flexible schedules to help them cope with the stress and anxiety they may be experiencing.

Telehealth services

Teletherapy sessions can provide workers with counseling from the comfort and safety of home. Employees struggling with mental illness and adjusting to the demands of working from home may find that telehealth services for depression are more manageable and safe during the pandemic.

The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper offers a teletherapy app where users can sign in and receive one-on-one and group counseling for addiction and co-occurring depression.

How To Help Employees in the Office

Social isolation may worsen depression, but employees working in the office setting are not immune to the effects of depression in the workplace.

If an employee discloses depression to you, you can assist them by providing accommodations in accordance with the law. You may give them a quiet office space away from others, provide them with modified work hours so they can attend appointments or perhaps give them an altered schedule, such as working four ten-hour shifts per week. Those additional days off can be spent caring for their mental health.

Some additional strategies for addressing and helping prevent depression in employees include:

Eliminate toxicity in the workplace

Office environments can be breeding grounds for toxic behaviors, such as jealousy, gossip and playing favorites. Show zero tolerance for toxicity. Create a workplace in which people see each other as a team and treat each other with respect. Leading by example and providing training on appropriate workplace behavior can support this initiative.

Create a relaxed, family-like environment

A rigid, formal work environment can create stress for any employee, especially one with depression. Instead, create a family-like atmosphere in which workers feel supported, valued, and comfortable coming to managers with concerns. When employees’ psychological needs are met at work, they are more satisfied with their jobs and their well-being improves.

Offer a private line of communication

Employees with depression may feel more supported if there is someone in upper management or human resources they can contact when they are struggling. Be sure that this open line does not include any members of management who are prone to gossiping.

Provide team-building activities

Studies show that team-building activities are commonly used to promote wellness and positive mental health among employees in stressful occupations like healthcare jobs. Retreats, sports tournaments and charity projects can be effective methods of combating workplace depression.

Create uplifting workspaces

Being confined to an office 40 hours per week can make it difficult for employees with depression to cope. Natural lighting from windows and views of the outdoors can relax employees and boost people’s moods at work. Green is associated with positive emotions, such as calmness and happiness, so this may be an appropriate choice for the office space. Plain white walls may make people feel tired and apathetic, while red can cause irritation, so avoid these colors for your workspace.

Company Resources

Supporting employees with mental health conditions like depression is achievable through an employee assistance program (EAP). An EAP provides education, assessments, short-term counseling and referrals to other services as needed.

You may consider developing an EAP in-house or contracting with an outside provider that offers EAP services to workplaces. Employers generally pay for EAP services, but many report a positive return on their investment. These services reduce the impact that mental health issues, substance abuse and other personal problems have on employee well-being and productivity.

If you are seeking assistance with developing workplace policies surrounding mental health and substance abuse, The Recovery Village offers support to employers. We also provide guidance in developing an EAP program at your organization or creating other resources for your employees.

If you or an employee is looking for treatment for depression and co-occurring addiction in New Jersey, The Recovery Village Cherry Hill at Cooper is here to help. Contact us today to discuss treatment options. 


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Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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