October 23, 2012

Helping Employees Cope with Depression

Law Practice Magazine

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April/May 2008 Issue | Volume 34 Number 3| Page 54


Helping Employees Cope with Depression

Given what we know about the high incidence of depression in the legal profession, it’s important that those who supervise others in law firms know something about the signs of the disease. Here is advice on recognizing the symptoms and encouraging your firm’s workers to seek help.

Much has been written about depression in the legal profession since the publication of a 1990 Johns Hopkins University study comparing the incidence of the illness in 28 different professions. The researchers found that lawyers suffered the highest rate of depression among the groups studied—and at nearly four times the rate of the general adult population.

Those with Ph.D.s behind their names tell us that many factors may influence why there is such a high incidence in the legal profession, including genetic predisposition, personality characteristics of those attracted to the law, the stress and isolation often associated with law practice, and biological causes such as brain chemistry. While much still needs to be learned about this insidious disease, what we do know is that it takes a tremendous toll on many people—those suffering it for sure, and often those around them, including family, friends and coworkers. It is a disease that does not discriminate. It doesn’t care about age, race, gender or religion. It can cause individuals to wake up unhappy, self-medicate through substance abuse, and contemplate or even commit suicide.

In most instances, though, depression is treatable—and those who manage others can take part in the process by understanding the symptoms and what to do if those signs exist.


Symptoms of Depression

According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, symptoms of depression include the following:

  • A persistently sad or irritable mood
  • Pronounced changes in sleep, appetite and energy
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating and remembering
  • Physical slowing or agitation
  • Lack of interest in or pleasure taken from activities that were once enjoyed
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness and emptiness
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Persistent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive disorders and chronic pain

In addition, you might see these possibly related signs:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Decreased productivity and missed deadlines
  • Substance abuse
  • ndecision or poor judgment
  • Mood swings or other erratic behavior, such as uncharacteristic outbursts of anger
  • Unusual anxiety or complaints of constantly feeling tired

It may be very difficult for an individual who’s suffering from depression to admit it and, in particular, to seek help. Untreated, depression can lead to devastating results. But the positive news is that 80 percent of all depression can be successfully treated. And as a supervisor, you may be able to play an important role in helping an employee get the needed assistance.


Steps You Can Take to Help

If you believe someone you supervise suffers from depression, approaching that person in a nonjudgmental, caring manner may be all he or she needs to get the necessary help. Remember that individuals can feel a sense of failure because of depression, thinking that if they could just handle things better they would not feel this way. This is among the insidious symptoms of the disease.

Begin by telling the individual the behavioral changes you have noticed—such as him regularly coming in late, missing deadlines or no longer interacting with others. You can ask some questions to find out if he has noticed symptoms of depression in himself. In many cases, the individual will acknowledge the symptoms and may already be in the care of a physician or in counseling. If this is not the case, you should encourage the individual to seek proper care. You can also encourage asking family and friends for assistance, too. Suggesting some specific resources can be especially helpful, since just finding assistance to deal with the disease can seem an overwhelming challenge. If you can suggest some next steps, it will also make the individual will feel supported by you.

If your firm has an onsite employee assistance program, introduce the individual to a person there who provides counseling, if he needs the extra push. A community mental health center or local social services agency may also be an option. Other resources include the lawyer assistance program (LAP) for your state. These programs typically have connections to other resources as well. Keeping a list of referral sources for physicians, therapists and psychiatrists who practice nearby may prove very helpful.

You can help employees in other ways as well. For example, you can help them with breaking large assignments into smaller, manageable tasks and setting realistic goals for work. Encourage exercise, such as walking, and re-pursuing activities that they once found enjoyable. When they speak negatively, help them to see the more positive side of situations. Check in with them regularly and ask if there is anything you can do to help. If they’ve entered treatment, ask them how it’s going. Once treatment has begun, it usually takes at least a month before individuals start to notice an improvement in their mood. Try to be especially encouraging during this time.

If, however, individuals refuse to seek assistance and continue to demonstrate the behaviors you discussed with them, you may need to take a tougher approach and tell them that if things don’t improve or they don’t get assistance, you will need to take personnel action. No one wants to play the role of “bad cop”—but it may be the extra push the individual needs to reach out for help.


A Supportive Work Environment

Although the causes of depression are not fully known, it is thought that environment, probably combining with other factors, may play a significant role in the disease’s onset. Clearly you don’t have the power to influence a coworker’s genetic or biological makeup—but you can exert an influence on the work environment. Consider these steps:

  • Encourage interaction and collaboration whenever possible so that individuals are not isolated from one another.
  • Plan social events, such as monthly luncheons or group volunteer activities.
  • Promote work-life balance or integration for your staff. All work with no outside outlets, including family relationships, can contribute significantly to depression.
  • Encourage healthy lifestyles, including eating properly and exercising.
  • Ensure that everyone who works for you understands that it’s acceptable to ask questions and to request help on projects, which may reduce the need for individuals to feel that they have to be perfect, or appear to be so (a major cognitive factor in depression).

Above all else, do not ignore the employee who shows signs of depression. Be willing to encourage your people to seek assistance and to support them as they do so.

About the Author

Marcia Pennington Shannon is a principal in the Washington, DC, attorney management consulting firm Shannon & Manch, LLP.
She is coauthor of Recruiting Lawyers: How to Hire the Best Talent ( ABA, 2000).