When Depression Enters The Workplace: What’s A Leader To Do?

For exactly one month now, Robin Williams’ suicide has kicked off a worldwide exploration of the treacherous terrain of depression. While we continue to mourn the passing of a comic genius and a beautiful human being, many of us have also been taking a more intimate look at how depression affects us and those we know. I’ve read so many useful articles in the media. But I haven’t seen anything on the intersection of depression and the workplace – and more specifically, on the challenges that managers face when someone on their team is depressed. So I thought I’d take that on – from a very personal angle.

Anyone who knows me knows that I can bitch and moan with the best of them, but that I am basically a sunny person. I love to laugh and to make others laugh. My friends can count on me to giggle at even their bad jokes and to delight in the smallest of things. And yet, depression runs through my family tree and my personal experience. People don’t realize that true happiness and depression can coexist in a person. Robin Williams is proof of this. So am I. Maybe, so are you.

Depression is like being locked in a soundproof booth with heavy, mean-spirited air. Intellectually, you know that the birds are singing, that you are loved, and that the world is every bit as beautiful as it is botched. But in the soundproof booth, you can’t feel the good stuff. The only thing you can feel is the isolation of the booth and the foul smell of the air in there. No amount of effort or willpower can break you out so that the sunlight can actually reach your skin.

Many people suffering from depression are walking into the workplace… your workplace. And the minute they do, they present a very difficult challenge to their bosses and colleagues. I’ve been through two significant depressions in my life. The first one came in my early 30’s, and I was blessed to have had a manager back then who dealt spectacularly well with me and the challenges that my depression handed to him as a manager. His name was David.

I’d like to share with you some of the many things he did right, in case you ever find yourself in his position.

  • From the beginning, David had established himself as someone with whom I felt safe to share my struggles. Yes, he held us to high standards of performance, but he also demonstrated, time and again, his respect and care for us as people. He always affirmed that our humanity and our performance were inextricably linked. So as scared as I was to reveal my depression to him, I trusted that he would receive it compassionately. And he did.
  • The first thing he said was, “You are addressing this in the most skillful and responsible way.” In that powerful sentence, he communicated that my difficulty did not freak him out. He also managed to affirm a way in which I was still competent, which is easy to lose sight of when you’re depressed.
  • Then he inquired about my external support system. Was I getting help? Was I in immediate danger? Did I have family or friends to lean on? He was appropriately trying to determine whether or not I had the support I needed and whether or not he needed to connect me to the company’s counseling resources.
  • Next, he inquired about my internal support system. Had I experienced this before? If so, what had I learned about the things that helped and didn’t? What aspects of that experience would I be able to draw on now?
  • David helped me to stay engaged at work to the degree possible. Frankly, it would have been easier for him to just tell me to take a leave of absence and come back when I was feeling better. But he took the risk to let me stay involved at work by scaling back my responsibilities and accommodating my more uneven ability to perform. Staying even minimally engaged in our work kept me in the mix of life and in touch with my strengths. That’s not necessarily helpful for everyone, but it was key for me.
  • He protected my need for privacy. Not only does depression feel terrible, but it also feels shameful. David did everything possible to avoid adding to that shame. We decided together how he would communicate my periods of absence to the staff, so that I was comfortable about the narrative. And he stuck to the script, whether addressing staff, peers or senior management.

Here’s what David did NOT do, that also helped a great deal:

  • He did not shut down or withdraw from me. We stayed productively and appropriately connected.
  • He did not take my depression on as his problem to solve. He knew where the boundaries of his managerial role were and never crossed them.
  • He never discounted my experience. He didn’t tell me to “snap out of it” or to “buck up.” Nor did he try to convince me why I shouldn’t feel bad.
  • He did not unload his own experience on me. The last thing I needed was someone else’s pain, disguised as empathy, piped into my soundproof booth.

David did not rescue me. That was not his job and he knew it. But at a time when even the simplest tasks seemed daunting to me, he absolutely eased my way. For those of you managing someone who experiences depression, I hope you will benefit from David’s spot-on leadership. His compassion never wavered, and yet he continued to expect and encourage me to produce to the fullest extent that I could. Grit and grace in powerful combination.


2 replies
  1. Susan Pellish
    Susan Pellish says:

    Well said Leslie. There is such shame and misinformation surrounding depression, bi-polar disorder and other brain dysfunction. Recently studies have found that there is a definite correlation between the brain’s development in a mother’s womb and the incidence of genetic depression. The synapses that allow positive brain function are much less frequent in a depressed person. The newer studies were able to produce brain cells from tissue samples of depressed patients hands that reinforced this theory. Robin Williams death was a tragedy, yet he fit the exact model for bi-polar depression. Rapid speech, boundless energy, brilliant thoughts, risk taking, alcoholism or drug abuse, and severe periods of black moods all fit into the bi-polar spectrum. I’m looking forward to the time that brain scans and other resources are able to be used to pin-point unnatural growth in the brain, leading to a life of depression. Thank you for a great “how to” guide for managers.

  2. Alice Dueker
    Alice Dueker says:

    Leslie, this is a wonderful post. I am glad you had such an able manager at that time in your life, and the outline of how he managed you is really valuable. Thank you!


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