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Strategies for Managing Depression in the Workplace

mental health May 02, 2024
Strategies for Managing Depression in the Workplace


Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, is a complex and pervasive mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It encompasses more than just feeling sad or blue; it can be a debilitating mental illness that significantly impacts a person's daily functioning, relationships, work, and overall quality of life. Depression can be experienced by anyone at any age. Approximately 11% of Canadians will meet the criteria for depression in their lives.1

A recent study by the Institute for Work & Health sought to answer how much of an impact depression can have on years of employment among working-age adults. It found that individuals with depression face increased likelihoods of unemployment, challenges in maintaining employment, and premature exit from the labour force.2 According to the research, these individuals are in the workforce for 5 to 15 years less than individuals without depression, depending on symptom severity and frequency.

Scientist and study lead Dr. Kathleen Dobson says that the findings indicate that “even occasional bouts of depression can significantly affect work life”.2 However, once individuals move into remission from depression, many can experience similar outcomes as people who have never had depression. This highlights the importance of interventions to reduce employees’ depressive episodes or minimize the severity and effects on their careers, finances, and overall health. Employers and workplaces have a part to play in supporting these employees and keeping them in the workforce longer.


Depression’s Impact in the Workplace

Depression is a mental illness characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyable. Symptoms of depression can manifest both emotionally and physically, ranging from feelings of emptiness and worthlessness to changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and energy levels. As a result, concentration, decision-making, and overall productivity may decline. In the workplace, individuals may struggle to meet deadlines, engage with coworkers, or perform at their usual level. Moreover, depression can exacerbate feelings of fatigue and irritability, making it challenging to cope with job-related stressors. Left untreated, depression can lead to absenteeism and presenteeism and impair an individual's ability to advance in their career. Recognizing the signs of depression and seeking support are crucial steps in managing its impact on daily functioning, both at work and in personal life.


Workplace Strategies for Employees with Depression

Remaining in the workforce or returning to the workforce while managing mental illness is a challenge. However, with understanding, support, and collaboration from the employer, as well as treatment and strategies from healthcare providers such as Occupational Therapists, it is possible for employees to reduce depressive episodes and manage their symptoms. Returning to health and productivity may involve some of the following strategies:


Identify and Modify Meaningful Activity

Identifying meaningful activities is helpful for individuals with depression as it provides a sense of purpose, satisfaction, agency, and joy, which can counteract feelings of hopelessness and despair. Engaging in activities that align with personal values and interests can also promote a sense of accomplishment and improve overall well-being. Modifying tasks can also make them more manageable and engaging. This could look like clarifying goals, breaking activities into smaller steps, incorporating sensory elements, or using assistive devices to overcome physical barriers. These strategies can reduce feelings of overwhelm and increase accessibility.


Skill Building and Education

Skill building and education can equip individuals with coping strategies and stress management techniques to help them navigate their challenges and mitigate symptoms. Learning how to cope with stressors and regulate emotions can help individuals improve their resilience and ability to function in both personal and professional settings. Helpful skills may include relaxation techniques, mindfulness practices, assertiveness training, and problem-solving strategies. Stress management techniques can include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization techniques.


Environmental Modifications

The environment plays a significant role in influencing mood and behavior; therefore, creating a comfortable, safe, and accessible environment can reduce mental health stressors and barriers to work participation. A workplace culture of understanding and support can help employees feel more comfortable and confident in their ability to perform their job duties. Facilitating social participation through building social skills, establishing supportive relationships, or engaging in community activities may be effective. Physical barriers can be addressed through adaptive equipment, ergonomic equipment, or exercises to improve mobility.


Routine Establishment and Time Management

Consistent routines provide structure and predictability, which can be beneficial for individuals struggling with depression. By balancing self-care activities, work tasks, and leisure pursuits, employees can maintain their sense of stability and control. Time management strategies can also help reduce feelings of overwhelm and increase productivity. Strategies could include task prioritization, task chunking, and using time-management tools like planners or digital apps.


What Can Employers Do?

As an employer, it's essential to create a supportive environment that prioritizes the mental health and well-being of employees. Here are some practical tips to support employees with managing mental illness in the workplace:


Promote a Positive Work Culture
  • Foster a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns without fear of stigma or judgment.
  • Encourage managers to have open and supportive conversations with their team members about mental health across the spectrum and offer resources for seeking help. Leaders may benefit from Manager Mental Health Training to get the tools and skills they need.
  • Educate staff on recognizing the signs of depression and how to support colleagues who may be struggling.


Offer Flexible Work Arrangements
  • Consider offering flexible work hours or remote work options to help employees manage their workload while prioritizing self-care and attending therapy or medical appointments.
  • Be understanding and accommodating when employees need to take time off for mental health reasons. Ensure that your organization has policies in place that support employees taking leave of absence for mental health purposes without fear of negative consequences.


Provide Resources and Support
  • Offer access to EAPs or mental health resources that provide confidential counseling services, referrals to mental health professionals, and resources for managing stress and depression.
  • Provide accommodations to help employees manage their mental health and function at work.


Foster a Healthy Work-Life Balance


How Can Gowan Consulting Help?

Our Occupational Therapists can provide tailored strategies and intervention for employees with depression and other mental health concerns. If you or an employee are struggling, make a referral or contact us to learn more about individualized mental health support to help your team stay healthy and at work. 

We also provide mental health training to both managers and employees on a variety of topics, including building resiliency, managing anxiety, reducing burnout, and more. Contact us to learn more about customized group training. Or visit our store for our current public training programs.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566 (24/7) or text 45645 (4 PM - 12 AM ET). Visit Talk Suicide Canada Community Resources for the distress centres and crisis organizations nearest you. Indigenous peoples across Canada who need immediate crisis intervention can reach experienced and culturally sensitive help line counsellors at 1-855-242-3310 (toll-free) or can connect to the online Hope for Wellness chat.


Works Cited

[1] Pearson, Caryn, Teresa Janz and Jennifer Ali. 2013. "Mental and substance use disorders in Canada" Health at a Glance. September. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624-X.

[2] Institute for Work & Health. (2023, September 20). What is the impact of depression on years of employment among working-age adults?