Recognizing Employee Depression at Work: COVID-19 and Beyond

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It’s common for employees to bring their whole selves to work, especially in a small business environment that comes with a “family” feel. However, when employees go through hard times individually or as a society (or both, such as during COVID-19), this can mean bringing symptoms of depression and other mental health issues to work, whether someone goes to work or works remotely. Today, we’ll talk about how small business owners can recognize depression symptoms in employees, express concerns properly and support employees with depression (or other mental health issues) during and beyond COVID-19.

(This article is designed to provide general information regarding managing mental health in the workplace; it’s not intended to serve as legal or medical advice.)


What is depression?

“True depression is not the blues, sadness or even grief. It is an overwhelming and enveloping despair, so bleak and dark that people who have experienced it say that it is the worst pain they have ever endured. Depression is a treatable mental illness … Research has shown that most people who receive treatment for depression respond well.”


What are the symptoms of depression?

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) says, “The main symptom of depression is a sad, despairing mood that … is present most days and lasts most of the day, lasts for more than two weeks [and] impairs the person’s performance at work, at school or in social relationships.”

Other symptoms include losing interest in things/people that are usually of interest, irritability, fatigue, changes in sleep patterns and appetite, withdrawing from people, thoughts of self-harm and feeling useless, hopeless and/or pessimistic, among others.


What does a small business owner need to know about depression during COVID-19 and beyond?

As a small business owner, you need to know that depression is out there. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 8% of adults experience major depression at some point. That might not seem like much to worry about except that’s only part of the story. Every year, 20% of Canadians will “personally experience a mental health problem or illness.”

In 2016, the Conference Board of Canada reported that depression costs the Canadian economy $32.3 billion a year, while the cost of anxiety is $17.3 billion per year.

Beyond depression, CTV News reports that for Distress Centre Calgary, “suicide-related calls, texts and chats were up 66 per cent in October compared with the same month in 2019.” The Toronto Sun reports that divorce and domestic abuse is on the rise since COVID-19. And CBC reports that calls and texts to the BC branch of Kids Help Phone have spiked since COVID-19.

All that to say, there’s a real possibility that one or more of your employees are burdened with some type of mental health issue.

As a small business owner, you don’t need to pinpoint an employee’s struggle. You simply need to notice something isn’t right and show your concern.

How to express concern about your employee’s mental health

If you’re concerned about an employee, it’s your responsibility to say something. This doesn’t mean becoming an armchair therapist; it means telling your employee what changes you see and offering help.

In a one-to-one meeting, you can say something like, “Joe, I’m noticing something different about you these days. For example, you usually offer positive encouragement during our team meetings and I don’t see you do that anymore. I’m concerned that something is troubling you. When you hear me say that, what do you think?”

During this conversation you can:

  • Mention that your employee benefits plan can be used to get help from a counsellor.
  • Ask if your employee has access to an employee assistance program (EAP) through their spouse.
  • Offer your employee a list of community resources.


How to express concern about your employee’s performance

Depression and other mental health concerns can cause performance dips and if that happens, you may need to address an employee’s performance.

In this case, present the conversation as a workplace performance issue. For example, you could say, “Joe, your role here includes X, Y and Z. In the last two weeks, I’ve noticed you haven’t done X three times and that concerns me because our clients count on this service. Today, I want to talk about how to get X back on track. What are your thoughts on what I just said?”

Continue the conversation, document it and your expectations and set a follow-up meeting. During one of these conversations, you may want to bring up ways you can accommodate your employee.

For more guidance on how to have this conversation, look at the article How can I approach an employee? in the resource section below.


What are your duties to accommodate a mental health condition like depression?

In a Globe and Mail article, lawyer Daniel A. Lublin says, “With the exception of certain safety-sensitive industries (airlines being one of them), Canadian employers cannot discipline, dismiss or otherwise discriminate against employees with illnesses or disabilities, whether overt or perceived, and they must attempt to accommodate them instead.”

Manulife, in their article, Duty to accommodate says, “The Canadian Human Rights Act determines that employers have a duty to accommodate employees who fall under the Act up to the point of undue hardship, taking into account health, safety and cost … If the employer is aware or ought to be reasonably aware of an addiction or disability related issue, they have the duty to inquire and investigate if it is inappropriate behaviour for the poor work performance or is it disability related before taking any disciplinary action.”

As a small business owner, it’s important to know your legal responsibilities and rights when it comes to accommodation issues. If you need help navigating this situation, we recommend consulting an employment lawyer.


Will depression decrease after COVID-19?

We can’t read the future, but research shows that public health crises have lingering (negative) effects. For example, in their report Mental Health in Canada: Covid-19 and Beyond, CAMH looked back to the 2003 SARS experience for lessons. They say, “One study found that 64% of SARS survivors continued to show signs of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress one year after the crisis … Several studies have linked the experience of quarantine to symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress, sometimes with long-term effects.”

It’s safe to say that people will continue to experience mental health issues in the future.

If you notice symptoms of depression or another mental health issues in one or more of your employees, be proactive about starting a conversation and showing your concern. While you can’t solve someone else’s problem, you can show you care and that goes a long way towards creating a supportive work environment.

With our simple, flexible and affordable employee benefits program, you and your employees can access mental health professionals. Take 10 minutes today to get a quote and show your concern by providing benefits your employees love at a price you can afford.


Mental Health Resources for Employees and Employers

What is Depression? – The Mood Disorders Society of Canada

What Can I Do to Help Myself if I Feel Depressed? – Government of Canada

Depression Guide – The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)

Finding Help for Mental Health (Reading Resources) – Canadian Mental Health Association

Canada-Wide Mental Health Resources (Contact Information) – Canadian Centre for Mental Health and Sport (CCMHS)

How Can I Approach an Employee? – Mental Health Works, a social enterprise of the Canadian Mental Health Association

Employee Mental Health Issues (Guide for People Leaders) – Workplace Strategies by Canada Life

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