How to deal with mental health and get the job done

There is a huge disconnect between employees and employers when it comes to discussions about mental health. As one can imagine, depression incidence rates have skyrocketed 25% since the onset of COVID-19, affecting 21 million American adults.

However, this prevalence in our population, as well as in our culture (see the explosion of mental health tech startups) has in turn led to increased levels of openness with mental health. Eighty-seven percent of Americans agree that having a mental health issue is nothing to be ashamed of, according to The American Psychological Association.

Even with these changing levels of stigma, however, clinical depression still costs the U.S. economy more than $51 billion in absenteeism from work and lost productivity according to Mental Health America. This growing toll points to poor communication between the employee, who still doesn’t feel capable of being vulnerable, and the employer, who often relies on lagging makeshift responses to these concerns.

This hits incredibly close to home, as we are professionals who have experienced depression and anxiety in a high-pressure corporate environment. We’ve worn the facade of keeping it all together for the reward of climbing the corporate ladder. Sadly, this desire to always perform at the highest level and an uncomfortable vulnerability to admitting our struggle led to quiet panic attacks in the bathroom, migraines so bad we had to work with the lights off and eventually leave our positions.

Looking back on our experiences now from the perspective of founders and ultimately employers, we are compelled to close that gap and think about how best to deal with workplace depression, as well as best way to support and continue to motivate employees who are suffering.

Set clearer and shorter goals

One of the biggest challenges as an employee when you’re going through a tough week with depression is making sure you’re prioritizing and deprioritizing correctly, so you can better meet the demands of your manager (which is half of the battle to navigate a challenging corporate environment). Since focus can often falter when it comes to mental health, we would prioritize lists to ensure that at a minimum, we accomplish the necessary things to at least keep up with the work. These exercises also provide the psychological benefit of feeling like you’ve accomplished small things throughout the day. Although easier said than done, it was more important that we were realistic about our ability to allow ourselves enough time to complete these tasks, knowing that a difficult week could slow us down.

As leaders, we need to realize that because depression can make workloads overwhelming or too complicated, it’s incumbent on us to make sure that work gets done simultaneously, but that we also support the well-being of our employees. Empower employees to feel more capable of meeting requirements by breaking large projects down into more manageable pieces. This not only builds confidence by helping employees succeed, but gives the manager a better understanding of how a project is progressing, so they know if scheduled deadlines will be met or if alternate action will be required to maintain project momentum. Research shows that shorter deadlines create higher levels of productivity and adherence.

Focus on impact rather than working hours

Depression affects a person’s energy levels, sleep patterns, and when they can be productive. This means that their ideal work schedule may look different than a typical nine-to-five schedule. For example, many people with depression find it difficult to get out of bed, which makes their mornings more difficult. As a result, many people we know with depression intentionally seek out work opportunities with flexible hours, so they can perform better at their own pace. Research has shown that this flexibility can actually increase productivity.

We recommend that managers focus on an employee’s impact rather than their working hours. That being said, deadlines should always be enforced and adhered to, as the basic structure is beneficial. One of our employees recently lacked energy for a few days during the week, but then felt better and worked through the weekend to complete the project in time for a Monday deadline.

Employees, on the other hand, must have strong communication skills to manage expectations with managers. As an employee, it is your responsibility to keep your manager informed of your progress. A simple “I wasn’t able to make as much progress as I hoped on the report today, but I’m still on track to complete it by Tuesday, as we agreed” will normally suffice .

Be sure to use employee assistance resources

While there are many ways to bridge the relationship gap between an employee and a manager when experiencing depression, one of the most effective tools is to provide easy access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). EAPs are a range of services offered by almost every company, which give employees access to services that help regulate work/life balance to maintain productivity. In recent years, companies have tried to differentiate themselves by investing heavily in strong mental health resources. However, EAPs tend to be the most underused methodologies with an average of only 3.5% of employees taking advantage of them each year.

As a manager, it’s important to understand that employees often don’t even realize these programs exist or the extent of the offering. Aggressively promote these programs beyond orientation, whether that means creating additional training or including benefit reminders in regular employee communication channels. Ease and clarity are essential. Therefore, using these opportunities to summarize communication around plan highlights, costs, services, and contact numbers can make resources much less difficult to access. A large part of the barrier for employees is the stigma associated with using these resources, so it is our job to normalize the use of these services by reminding employees that many of the stressors they are faced in these work environments are common and that these services exist to help them overcome these challenges in healthy ways.

Thinking back, one of our biggest mistakes as employees with workplace depression is that we were afraid to take advantage of EAP resources. We didn’t understand the privacy behind requesting help, and we weren’t sure what kind of approval was needed to access these benefits. As much as privacy is important to you, remember that these resources are confidential, so employers don’t know who is using the services and who isn’t. While navigating workplace depression can seem like a minefield, we’ve come to realize that the price of doing what’s right for you and your mental well-being is always worth it.

Kyle Pierce and Morgan Hewett are the co-founders of the telehealth company focused on treatment-resistant depression, Options MD.

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