When depression becomes a management issue

When depression becomes a management issue

  |  April 24, 2008

David Jones* first suspected something was wrong when Christy Wright missed three days of work and didn’t call the store. “It wasn’t characteristic of her,” Jones says. He’d promoted Wright to grocery manager after three years with a strong track record. “She was as good as I’ve ever seen in dealing with difficult customers.”

With only 25 employees, the workforce of Jones’ natural foods store “knew everyone else’s business,” he says. Jones knew that Wright’s mother had died earlier that year, that she worried about her chronically ill father and that a serious relationship had recently ended.

Just as Jones was about to contact Wright personally about her absence, Wright showed up in Jones’ office. She expressed her grief over her failed relationship and her concerns about her family, but claimed she was ready to return to work.

However, Wright’s attendance became increasingly unreliable. After she had missed a week of work, and Jones’ phone messages went unanswered, the general manager and another department manager went to Wright’s house. There they found her sitting in the dark, smoking cigarettes. Apparently she had not eaten for days. “It was as if she was waiting for us to come and find her,” Jones recalls.

They took her to the hospital, where mental health professionals set up a counseling appointment for her and prescribed medication. However, as far as Jones could tell, Wright never attended her appointments or took the medication.

In the ensuing months, Wright used up all her sick leave. Some days she would go home for lunch, fall asleep and not come back to work. Jones urged Wright to apply for short-term disability benefits under the store’s policy, but Wright never followed through.

Her behavior became increasingly erratic, marked by emotional outbursts with customers and other staff. Some of her direct reports lost respect for her and complained about her frequent absences. When Jones called Wright into his office to counsel her about her behavior, Wright became defensive, or she cried, called herself stupid and claimed she could do nothing right.

It took six months of unpredictable attendance, several incidents of bizarre behavior and two unfulfilled performance improvement plans before Jones reluctantly terminated Wright’s employment. Wright displayed many of the symptoms of clinical depression listed by the National Institute of Mental Health:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or ’empty’ mood;
  • Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism;
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and helplessness;
  • Decreased energy, fatigue and feeling ?slowed down;?
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions;
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening or oversleeping;
  • Appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and weight gain;
  • Restlessness and irritability.

According to NIMH, depression affects one in 10 working-age adults. Moreover, workers suffering from depression are four to five times more likely to experience work-related problems than healthy workers or workers with chronic physical illnesses.

Depression comes in several varieties:

Major depression is characterized by disabling episodes that interfere with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat and enjoy once pleasurable activities.

Dysthymia involves long-term, chronic symptoms that do not disable, but keep a person from functioning well or feeling good. Many people with dysthymia also experience major depressive episodes at some time in their lives.

Bipolar disorder manifests in a cycle of severe highs (mania) and lows (depression).

The odds are that at some point you’ll have to deal with employees who suffer from depression. How can you help them? What are your obligations and rights as an employer?

Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, if an employee?s depression substantially limits his or her ability to perform major life activities, that worker is protected from discrimination in employment (hiring, training, compensation, advancement and termination.) Major life activities include learning, thinking, concentrating, interacting with others, sleeping and working—activities typically impacted by depression.

An employee grappling with major depression or bipolar disorder would probably be considered disabled by the ADA and therefore subject to its protections. If you have at least 15 employees, the ADA applies to your business. In addition, each state has laws that may apply to smaller work forces.

The law doesn’t expect you to diagnose an employee?s disability. As a manager, you might see performance problems such as excessive absenteeism, lateness, lack of productivity or irritability with customers. In the absence of any information from the employee, you must deal with those performance problems exactly as you would with any other staff member. You may suspect your employee is depressed, and you may want to help him or her, but all you can do is provide an open door.

It’s the employee’s choice whether to reveal his or her disabling condition to you. Once the employee initiates the discussion, you must treat a disclosure with utmost confidentiality, and keep any documentation of the disability, such as verification from health professionals, in a file separate from the personnel file.

To help cope with a disability, the ADA entitles an employee to ask for reasonable accommodation—adjustments that allow an otherwise qualified person to perform the duties necessary to the job. To be considered reasonable, the accommodation should not create an excessive financial burden or excessive interference with business operations.

Accommodations for depression are likely to be highly individual and relatively low-cost, such as changes in schedule, to-do lists or instructions in writing, regular meetings with a supervisor to set priorities, time off for medical or therapy appointments, or an unpaid leave of absence if paid time off has been used up.

You need not grant exactly the accommodation the employee requests, as long as the accommodation you choose is effective in allowing your employee to do the job. You are expected to have a dialogue with the employee about what he or she needs.

What the ADA does not require is accepting substandard performance. For instance, if it’s essential to the job to have someone start work at a regular, predictable time every day, it would not be a reasonable accommodation to allow an employee to show up at any time during the day or not at all.

The ADA refers to “essential functions of the job.” You know a function is essential if:

  • The reason the position exists is to perform that function;
  • There are a limited number of employees available to perform the function;
  • The function is so highly specialized that the person in the job was hired for his or her expertise or ability to perform it.

For example, interacting with customers would be an essential function of a cashier job. An employer would not be obligated to find work for a cashier that did not involve any interaction with the public. Essential functions should be listed in the job description.

In the wake of Christy Wright’s tumultuous departure, David Jones reflects, “I felt so inadequate. I didn’t have the training to handle this on my own. I allowed things to happen that I shouldn’t have. I didn’t want to see what was happening because I had an emotional stake, because I cared about Christy as a person. When I finally drew the line, I realized I should have drawn it a lot sooner.”

He began researching options for an Employee Assistance Program. This valuable service offers a limited number of free, confidential counseling sessions for employees with personal and work-related problems, followed by referrals to other available resources. Managers can refer employees to the EAP who appear to be struggling with personal problems, and they can turn to the EAP for advice themselves on handling performance issues among the staff. All these services can be had at a very modest cost to the employer, typically $20 to $25 per employee per year.

Jones recently signed a contract with a local mental health center for an EAP. If another employee becomes disabled by depression, this time there will be help available.

* The names and other identifying details of the people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their privacy. This article should not be construed as legal advice or as pertaining to specific factual situations.


Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVI/number 12/p. 16-17

About the Author

Carolee Colter

Human Resources for Boards &...


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