Working Americans are at a much higher risk of depression, according to newly released data reported by Forbes: Their risks of depression have risen more than 100 percent since February 2020. Meanwhile, three in four workers have experienced burnout, a joint survey by Flex Jobs and Mental Health America found. In short, mental health is a very real issue in the workplace, and in recent months, with increasing rates of mental illness, has only grown in importance.
When Depressed at Work, How Do You Get Support from Your Employer?
For those whose depression, anxiety, or other mental health symptoms are impacting their work performance, it’s not always clear how to get support from HR—or whether it’s a good idea to consult HR in the first place. (And, this reality seems to play out in the statistics. Flex Jobs-Mental Health American survey found, for example, that only one in five workers suffering from burnout said they were able to find support from their HR department; and, more than half of workers were not inclined to view their HR department as a viable source of support.)
Barbara Dunkiel is an expert on questions about employer supports for mental health. As Director of Human Resources at FHE Health, Dunkiel is a longtime professional in the field and can speak with firsthand authority about depression in the workplace—and how affected employees can find the support they need to successfully manage both their condition and their job duties. Dunkiel shared some tips and insights in a recent interview.
How to Seek Help from HR for Depression at Work
It’s not uncommon for employees to experience work-related depression from burnout or other factors. It’s also not uncommon to suffer from clinical depression that impacts job performance. When these things happen, many people avoid telling their supervisor and/or HR out of fear of reprisal or shame and self-stigmatization.
Yet keeping an honest line of communication with HR and one’s supervisor is often the starting point for getting much-needed help and support, according to Dunkiel. She emphasized “the need to speak openly about your depression” and encouraged telling HR and your supervisor about “the condition and symptoms and how you are able to manage (or are not managing) the depression.”
“You want to let them know that what seems likes poor performance is being affected by mental health issues which might be impacting personality changes, attendance issues, productivity, etc.,” Dunkiel said. She explained that if an employer isn’t cued into the fact that you’re suffering from depression, they could misinterpret changes in behavior and “won’t be able to provide the support or accommodation needed.”
Common Obstacles to Seeking Help from HR
Dunkiel was quick to acknowledge and normalize feelings of fear or even distrust towards an employer, if you’re considering whether to share a health problem like depression. On this point, though, she noted how prevalent depression is—as “the leading cause of disability worldwide” and “especially during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Within this context, Dunkiel shared that “more and more employers support mental health and wellness programs for their workforce” and offered the reassurance that any employee suffering from depression is not alone.
In other words, employers today are far better attuned to the reality of depression among workers—and better prepared for how to support them—than they were years ago.
Other Reasons to Consult HR for Depression Help
There are other good reasons to consult HR for depression, according to Dunkiel. For one thing, letting HR know rather than keeping it a secret can reduce stress levels. In many cases, informing HR can unlock the door to “more support and guidance, resources and options.” Among them: potential workplace accommodations that provide the extra support or permission needed to attend doctor’s visits, therapy, or other interventions.
The other reality is that clinical depression, when ignored, doesn’t go away on its own and can become even more debilitating. In many cases, depression can be treated in an outpatient capacity, via antidepressants and therapy. In other cases, the depression is so severe it requires inpatient rehab. Regardless of whether you receive inpatient or outpatient treatment, often the employer will need to be informed in advance.
Help for Workplace Depression – Employee Rights and Employer Requirements
When seeking help for workplace depression from an employer, employees may benefit from knowing they have certain legally protected rights.
“Be an advocate for yourself and know your rights under the law,” Dunkiel said. “Mental illness is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which considers clinical depression a protected disability—which means you can’t legally be discriminated against because of depression or any other mental illness. Remember it’s no different than reporting a physical health problem.”
Dunkiel also recommended these steps when seeking job-protected help for depression:
- Apply for “Family Medical Leave” under the terms of the Family Medical Leave Act, or if you’re not eligible—request a personal leave of absence.
- Request Medical Workplace Accommodations such as but not limited to:
- working remotely, frequent breaks, flexible hours, or a change in the work schedule (hours/days/ shift)
- a change in status, going from full-time to part-time or per diem
- changing work assignments
The hitch is that “unless you let your employer know that you have a disability, the employer is not obligated to consider accommodations under the ADA,” Dunkiel added. She went on to reiterate the importance of honesty when dealing with mental health challenges: “Technically employees do not have to disclose their mental health to HR. However, if symptoms of mental health are affecting your ability to complete work, your attitude, or relationships with co-workers, then a conversation is necessary for your success at work.”
Remember that your employer is required by law to provide information on the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and paperwork, as well as a “Request for Medical Workplace Accommodation” application. You have the added right to inquire about your company’s Personal Leave Policy if you don’t qualify for FMLA.
Supports HR Can Provide
Dunkiel mentioned a number of supports that HR can provide for depression (depending on the company). She said many employers have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), which are worth inquiring about. Some EAPs offer a limited number of free mental health counseling sessions. Many companies also have excellent insurance benefits with detailed information about mental health and wellness resources.
In addition to these supports, many HR departments provide workshops and online classes free of charge on depression and other mental health awareness topics. In some cases, an employer may be able to refer you to a clinical therapist, assist you in finding support groups, and help you make the most of your mental health insurance benefits.
How to Prepare for Meeting with HR to Discuss Your Needs
Dunkiel gave these tips for how to approach HR regarding concerns about depression:
- Find the right time and state of mind to determine how and when to have the discussion with HR.
- Don’t be afraid of stigma or what people might think.
- Write down in advance what you want to say and what you may need from your employer.
How FHE Health Can Help
At FHE Health, our experts often advise people who are struggling with job-related depression or other mental health symptoms that may be affecting their work performance. Our counselors can provide treatment-related advice for working professionals who know they need treatment but aren’t sure how to access it in a full-time job. We also regularly educate individuals about their job-protected rights to seek depression treatment and we help them advocate for these rights with their employer. If you’re struggling with depression but are afraid to tell your employer, we can help. For guidance and support, call us anytime 24/7.