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Helping Coworkers with Depression during the Holidays (and Beyond)

Helping Coworkers with Depression during the Holidays (and Beyond)


By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University

As we celebrate the holidays and watch movies such as “Office Party,” let’s be mindful that not all people are happy during this season. New York health coach and blogger Jenny Sansouci once discussed a quote penned by Henry David Thoreau, which might explain why some people may experience feelings of emptiness during times of celebration and reflection. According to Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”

External Behavior Often Masks Internal Feelings of Depression

Most people go through life with the appearance that everything is okay. In reality, there is some unfulfilled need in their lives and they never truly reach their inner potential in this life. These individuals go through life doing the right thing. They do not tap into their inner thoughts and listen to the quiet voice inside urging them to take a leap toward fulfilling passion and potential.

Unfortunately, these dormant feelings often rise to the surface during the holidays when people are celebrating and looking forward to the start of a new year. As individuals reflect on their lives, they may not be happy with their self-assessments and accomplishments.

Aiding Coworkers Who Are Silently Suffering

If people are suffering from depression in silence, how can we identify and help them? We can help them through engagement.

We often talk about the best practices, theories and principles of how to create a truly engaging workplace in our organizations. I think there is one underlying practice that we have to master if we truly want to become engaged with other people. We have to become “your brother’s keeper.”

The concept of this phrase has its origins in the Bible, with the story of Cain and Abel. Over time, the phrase “your brother’s keeper” has been used to imply looking out for one another as a manner of goodwill to mankind.

However, the topic of “knowing” what is going on with your coworkers can be sensitive. Human resources professionals have discussed with managers how to develop boundaries, especially as they relate to separating personal situations from work-related issues.

I support the establishment of boundaries, but I also believe that in order to help someone become the best he or she can be, you have to understand the “whole” person. An individual’s personal life and challenges are a part of his or her makeup. At some level, external factors do play a role in determining what is the best course of action to help a person with depression.

What Should You Do To Extend a Helping Hand?

There are four actions you can take to help a depressed coworker who clearly needs assistance:

  1. Have an open-door policy. Make sure that your coworkers know that you are available to talk with them. People appreciate individuals who are approachable and sincere. They may not need you to resolve the issue. Rather, they need someone to be a sounding board by listening.
  2. Check in with your coworkers regularly. One faithful habit that I have is contacting someone when a thought of him or her pops into my mind. I don’t believe in coincidences, so my train of thought has always been that there is a reason why someone comes to mind.
  3. Be aware of that person’s activities in the workplace. Non-verbal communication tells a story. Some people might not want to share what is going on with them, but you can pick up little things by their actions. Has there been a shift in their mood during the season? Do they seem depressed? Are they acting differently toward co-workers?
  4. Know when and how to act to help someone who needs assistance. Some people argue that we should only be concerned with work-related issues. However, as human beings, we do not want to see people spiral out of control from depression. Without invading a person’s privacy, what steps can we take?

Most employers have some type of Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The concept has been around for a couple of decades. An organization’s program can provide direct or indirect services to those needing assistance and participation is confidential. There are services available for financial, relationship and health issues. Think about how you can get your organization’s information on a troubled individual’s radar.

These suggestions are helpful in getting a pulse on how well your employees and co-workers are doing in terms of mental health and stamina, especially around the holidays. Holidays tend to be a sensitive time of year when people:

  • Reflect on past relationships with loved ones who have passed away.
  • Take stock of how their lives are going (i.e. financial and/or family distress.
  • Think about what the future holds for them.

In essence, thoughts can be an unhappy experience for some people.

How can we help? For those of us who don’t have difficulties at this time of year, Canadian executive coach and speaker Ray Williams notes that the holidays are an opportunity to reach out to those who become depressed.

Make an effort this season (and throughout the year) to be your brother’s keeper. Reach out to people who appear to be struggling with depression, and refer them to someone who can help. You never know whose life you will touch with something as small as a smile or extending a hand as an act of friendship.

About the Author

Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.

Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision, and an ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.



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