7 Ways You Can Empower a Depressed Coworker

Depressed Woman at Work


AnnaMarie Houlis
AnnaMarie Houlis
June 20, 2024 at 12:36AM UTC
A jarring 300 million people around the world have depression, according to the World Health Organization. That's 16.2 million adults in the United States (equaling 6.7 percent of all adults in the country) who have experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.
Depression is a common mental illness that can be debilitating for a lot of people — especially those who are silently struggling through their workdays, trying to manage their workloads and their health. While you might not always be aware that a co-worker is depressed (they might not feel comfortable or deem it necessary to open up with you about their depression), signs of depression include fatigue, lack of concentration, slowness in activity, tardiness and more.
If you think you may have a co-worker dealing with depression, here are seven ways to support, accommodate and empower them.

1. Remind Them That it's OK if They're Running Late.

If your co-worker is regularly running late and it's affecting the team or the company, of course, that's cause for concern. But if your co-worker is running late because they have therapy sessions or are overwhelmed with responsibilities (or problems) at home like caretaking for children or elders, perhaps there's some wiggle room you can allow them.
Remind your co-worker that it's OK if they're running late one day — let them know that you understand that life happens, and we can't always be on time like we'd like to be, especially if we're juggling trying to be in two places practically at once. If it's not a regular occurrence that's negatively impacting the company, let them know that you're letting it slide, and perhaps even offer to lend a hand if there's a job responsibility you can help them with that morning.

2. Schedule Meetings Around Their Therapy Sessions.

Schedule any meetings with your co-worker around their therapy sessions, but keep it to yourself. No one else in the meeting needs to know that they're coping with depression, unless, of course, they confide in those other co-workers themselves.
If you can rearrange or schedule any upcoming meetings to accommodate them, doing so will let them know that you understand the scope of their situation and are supportive of their efforts to heal themselves. It will also take some stress off of them now that they can attend both their therapy appointment and their work obligations and, of course, decreased stress can help someone trying to heal from depression.

3. Help Them Remember Things if Their Memory Is Weak.

Depression in older adults may be linked to memory problems, according to research. The research also suggests that older people with greater symptoms of depression may actually have structural differences in their brains, compared to people without symptoms.
If your depressed co-worker is struggling to remember dates, deadlines, responsibilities on their to-do list, or anything that might be critical for them to do their jobs well, help them remember these things. Make mental or physical notes for them, and if you have meetings with them, make sure to send them email reminders. You don't need to make it obvious that you're keeping track of their laundry list for them, but ask them questions about their work or what you know is going on in their lives to help trigger their memories.

4. Listen to Them Without Judgement.

You don't need to pretend like you understand someone with depression — in fact, comparing yourself to them might be incredibly frustrating for them. If they're dealing with clinical depression, and you're just having an off morning, saying "I feel you, there," probably isn't the best thing to say. Even if you just want them to feel like they're not alone, it's best not to try to relate.
What you can do, however, is merely lend an ear. Listen to them without judging or criticizing them. And, if you have experienced or are experiencing depression, too, you can share your own stories and healing advice with them. Just beware that some advice might come off as shaming the person dealing with depression. For example, if you tell them that they'll "be fine" or that they're "too thin-skinned,"  or if you ask them why "every little thing" bothers them, they might feel as though you're invalidating their feelings.

5. Be Patient With Them.

Studies suggest that depression is linked to lower productivity levels. In fact, one study shows a relationship between the severity of depression symptoms and work function, and suggests that even minor levels of depression are associated with a loss of productivity. 
If your co-worker is slow to respond to emails, is meeting deadlines at the very last minute or missing them entirely, or hasn't been pulling their weight quite to the same extent as they used to anymore, they might be dealing with depression. Be patient with them before immediately writing them off as "lazy" or "unprofessional."
Send them reminders, in case their memory is lagging, but be patient as much as you can. So long as they're still getting their work done, albeit at a slower and perhaps less productive pace, cut them some slack during depressive episodes.

6. Remind Them of Their Importance.

Studies suggest that, contrary to popular belief, depressed people are not less motivated by personal goals but, rather, they're more pessimistic about attaining them. One study found that depressed people don't lack valued goals, but they're more pessimistic about their likelihood, controllability and reasons for successful goal attainment.
Help your co-worker keep an optimistic, positive mind by reminding them of their importance to you and the company. If they're feeling like they don't have any control, letting them know how much their work significantly impacts the team (by patting them on the back, perhaps), will remind them.
Also talk with them about their goals to also remind them of why their goals are so important to them. When you talk it out together, perhaps they'll be able to better realize that they can achieve these goals and be successful.

7. Encourage Activity.

Depression can be a lonely mental illness — one that makes some people feel alone and also unmotivated to engage in social activities, so they're physically alone, too. It's a vicious cycle: Loneliness can lead to depression, and depression can trigger loneliness.
Encourage activity by inviting your depressed co-worker to join you for lunch, to take a break to run an errand, to happy hours and to other company outings. If you're talking with other co-workers over coffee in the morning, engage them in the conversation. You might even ask them for their help with a task (without putting pressure on them to take on more work that's not in their job description); feeling needed or of value to someone can help kick loneliness.

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AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.

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