Health & Wellness

How Can Employers Manage Depression in the Workplace?

By Kandy Cantwell on January, 23 2019
7 minute read

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"I'm feeling down."

"I feel bummed out"

"I'm depressed."

It can be pretty common to hear these kinds of statements. But clinical depression is not simple unhappiness. It's a complex mood disorder—and it's important to know the difference.

Continue reading to learn how to help employees who struggle with depression and mental health in the workplace.


How Does Workplace Depression Affect Employers?

Employees who are struggling with a mood disorder might have substandard work performance, including:

  • decreased productivity
  • increased absenteeism
  • compromised safety
  • alcohol and drug abuse.

Employees also might take disability leave, which adds another burden since you don't know when they’ll return to work.

Learn how employee wellness programs improve the health of employees and  organizations>>

Triggered by various factors—including genetic predisposition, stress, personality, and brain chemistry—depression is frequently treated with drugs. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) 8.6% of Canadians are taking antidepressants and their usage is on the rise.

However, clinical depression is relatively rare. Only 4.7% Canadian population aged 15 years and above reported symptoms that met the criteria for major depression.

Conversely, it’s common for people to experience mild or moderate depression, formerly called situational depression, when they're experiencing the ups and downs of life. These can include work challenges, a breakup, death of a loved one, or financial troubles.  

The challenge with treating these situational mood disorders is that the evidence shows that medication has no greater effect than a placebo.  

Are Antidepressants Effective?

Canadian insurer, Green Shield, which insures 7% of the marketplace, reimbursed $45 million in 2015 for anti-depression medications. But are these drugs effective?

Green Shield conducted a study, monitoring 35,000 people taking antidepressants for over three years. The results might surprise you: Only 12-15% were taking depression meds properly, while 85-88% were somehow taking them improperly. For example, some people filled their prescriptions but were on doses too low to have an impact. Others filled their prescriptions once and never again.

Therefore, your employees might be filling prescriptions for pricey antidepressants that are making no difference. Are there alternative treatments?


How to Reduce Workplace Depression Symptoms

To help employees cope when they're feeling low, employers can initiate wide-ranging preventative strategies. Will workplace wellness strategies help everyone?

No. Clinical depression requires serious medical treatment. But for the majority of people the best mood-boosting benefit you can offer employees is exercise!

Many studies show that exercise improves brain function and releases mood-enhancing chemicals in the brain. Organize lunchtime fitness classes or group walks after work—or collaborate with community centres or gyms to offer discounted memberships.


You can also support employees through providing education on health topics such as nutrition, sleep, mindfulness, and resilience. You could provide workshops, weekly newsletters, Facebook posts or YouTube videos.

Workplace Wellness Programs: How to Tie It All Together

The best way to help employees exercise and educate them on health issues is with a workplace wellness program. A wellness program will give you essential tools and resources to support employee health and wellbeing.

But for a workplace health initiative to be effective, top-down direction—from leadership—is imperative. So how can you ensure success?

Launch your program with specific goals and funding. Appoint someone knowledgeable and keen on health issues to lead the program. Your benefits advisor can also help you build a program from the ground up, and ensure it will be successful.

Don’t Forget About Employee Assistance Programs

For more personalized support, consider establishing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that provides employees with counselling support. Talking to a neutral, supportive professional provides an outlet to vent strong emotions—as well as guidance on how to cope.  

In addition, Cognitive Behaviour Therapy has been shown to have long term benefits to improving and preventing mood disorders. In British Columbia, Bounceback BC offers video support and face-to-face coaching for mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety.

Important Considerations for Supporting Employees

Training your managers to note changes in employee behaviour and to encourage employees to share their struggles, provides an opportunity to provide support and prompt them to get help. The following simple, humane steps will help to foster an atmosphere which can reduce or shorten periods of struggle for your staff:

  • Show employees respect. Listen non-judgmentally.
  • Make them aware of their value in the workplace.
  • Encourage them to seek support and to speak to health professionals or employee assistance specialists.

But don't take on more than is warranted. Do not make specific diagnoses: a trained medical professional is the only one who should do so. Just be watchful. If you notice depression symptoms and changed work performance in an employee, avoid immediately taking disciplinary action. Instead try to foster a safe, supportive environment.

At our most recent Speaker Series, Green Shield’s Peter Grove shared some accommodation strategies employers can use to do this.  

In addition, here are some external resources you can point employees to at any time:


Depression in the workplace is a serious issue that affects individuals, colleagues, and employers alike. While those with serious clinical depression can benefit greatly from antidepressants, studies have shown little to no impact for mild or moderate depression.

So to ensure employees are getting the help they need, do what you can to support them with other methods.

The best way to do so is through a workplace wellness program that emphasizes movement and exercise. Also, provide opportunities for personalized treatment, such as through an Employee Assistance Program. And finally, learn how to recognize depression symptoms so you can take supportive action for employees who need the help.

We hope this blog has helped you learn more about managing depression in the workplace. If you have a question for us, please let us know in the comments, and we’ll get back to you quickly.

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