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How to Manage an Employee With Depression

Coaching / Training / Mentorship

24 September, 2021

Sachin Shah
Sachin Shah

CTO at Self Employeed

Sachin Shah, CTO, discusses how he dealt with and supported a team member with mental health challenges while handling project deadlines.


One of the members of the group I was part of was on a “return to work” programme after an ongoing depression that they were experiencing. I had taken this person on a short-term (4 months) assignment as part of a small team. I knew the potential challenges this may cause both with clients (specifically for delivery timelines more than health challenges) and team morale. But for their mental wellbeing and building confidence, I made the decision to take this person on my team. The team being a small team and timelines in which we needed to deliver the project were short which started to build pressure. On one hand, I wanted to support their emotions, and on the other hand, I had the priorities crawling over.

The person needed to take time off on short notice which was a challenging situation to deal with on an ongoing basis. Often I would know just before the start of office hours that they can not come to the office as they are not well or at times they wouldn’t inform me mainly, because they find picking up the phone due challenging to depression. All I had to do was understand, be empathetic, and make sure the company looked after them; but the question is, how do we manage the client's priorities alongside the person’s wellbeing and confidence?

Letting them go was not an option because we needed their expertise and skill on an ongoing project that they were fully trained on. Besides, we did not want to harm their confidence either.

Actions taken

I did not counsel or support them medically for their depression because I am not a certified counselor. However, I signposted them to relevant support services that the company provides over and above what they were getting if they needed to. I used my judgment to assess IF they were suicidal at any stage, this wasn’t the case in this scenario but when mental health challenges are involved ensure to check in with this issue in mind. It is good to sign a post with a suggestion that they consult their doctor in case any of those services they may not be aware of. I was more supportive in the sense of being a listener and understanding their point of view. Whether they were showing up at work or not, I was only empathetic to their situation. Through my sense of empathy, I was able to be transparent with the entire team.

Furthermore, I communicated with the team about their conditions 一 not providing them with too much information 一 but just so everyone is aware of their co-worker. It is important that I discuss how and what they wanted me to disclose to their colleague, as often they may not feel comfortable, or even mentioning to others could be a trigger for them. However, not talking to the team was not an option. I did not want them to feel burdened about coming to work or get uncomfortable by their co-worker’s reactions. At the same time, it is important that the team has some awareness so that they understand when the rest of the team may need to pick up extra work. I spoke to the person explaining the importance of them informing me as far as possible so that I can manage client's expectations and teams.

To improve productivity and reduce the interruption in the processes, we took this extra step. For instance, the person was already battling with mental health challenges, and upon their return, they could work part-time. We hoped that it would help them ease into their work. Even then they needed extra time off because of the way they were feeling.

Additionally, I had regular conversations about how their life was going, and how they were holding up. I would listen to anything that they wanted to share if they wanted to share without making a “ceremony” of it. It would be an open conversation and a comfort space for them to talk further. We also created a calendar to know which days they were working. It would help them manage the day and time off that they needed, avoiding last-minute cancellations of work.

I suggested to them, on a daily basis, to create what they have done (status) and what they plan to do in the next couple of days. In this way, I could help someone else pick up from where they left off, and also re-prioritize tasks that needed to be completed urgently.

I encouraged the person to join the diversity and inclusion group, specifically a mental health programme. This was a safe space for people with mental health challenges. They could all learn from each other.

Lessons learned

  • If you do not understand a person's mental health challenges, do some research about the issues. Signpost to resources without overwhelming them. This will give you the tools to deal with the situation.
  • Do not make assumptions about their challenges. In some sense, you might become judgemental, rather than factual, which is not the appropriate approach.
  • Knowledge-sharing sessions for team awareness are important if you have someone facing challenges in the team or not. As a manager or a leader, you should be vocal about your support and understanding of various segments of diversity e.g. mental health, gender, sexuality, neurodiversity. This will encourage team members to reach out to you if they have challenges in any of these areas.

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