High functioning depression at work – here’s what managers need to know

How do you define your team's success? Perhaps it's that everyone turns up every day and works hard, or that all your deadlines and targets are hit.

High functioning depression at work – here’s what managers need to know

How do you define your team’s success? Perhaps it’s that everyone turns up every day and works hard, or that all your deadlines and targets are hit. From the outside, employees with high-functioning depression may appear to be working well and helping to drive your team’s success, but their internal struggles will often affect their ability to work effectively down the line. 

To help managers, Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing at Bupa UK shares the tell-tale signs of high-functioning depression and how to support employees you’re concerned may be suffering in silence. 

What do managers need to know about high-functioning depression?

Recent Google search volumes reveal that it’s especially important to address high-functioning depression in the workplace now. Our new research shows there’s been an increase in UK employees turning to Google to seek information relating to their mental health at work:

250% increase in Google searches for ‘struggling at work with depression’

200% increase in Google searches for ‘signs of functioning depression’

50% increase in Google searches for ‘high functioning depression’

High-functioning depression can be difficult to spot as it’s classed as a low-level form of depression, so its symptoms are milder. But symptoms can last for years, harming a person’s sense of self and mood, leaving them feeling generally gloomy. 

Over time, these feelings can affect how well a person can live, which can impact their work performance and relationships with colleagues. Even if they feel like they’re able to work well currently, an employee with high-functioning depression should still seek treatment for their symptoms, as research shows that they’re at greater risk of having a major depressive episode in the future. 

Why are more employees searching for information on high-functioning depression?

The pandemic vastly changed our work habits with employees and managers alike feeling the pressure to be constantly available. 

For many, overworking during the pandemic brought about poor sleeping and eating habits, a loss of energy and interest in daily activities – these are all also symptoms of high-functioning depression. 

Studies show that the number of people experiencing clinical symptoms of high-functioning depression tripled during the pandemic. As many companies have introduced permanent hybrid or remote working beyond, many of us may still be in the habit of working how we did in the height of the pandemic. 

Overworking on a long-term basis isn’t sustainable for our health. Putting in excessive amounts of hours and not taking the time to wind down after work can lead to burnout and other health issues. For those who already have health issues, overworking can make things worse.  

This can lead to presenteeism which is when we continue working despite being unwell – which has a huge impact on individuals and businesses alike. 

Lots of people got into the habit of overworking, maybe because they didn’t feel comfortable taking time off – they may have been worried that it would harm career progression, or felt like everyone else was always contactable, so they also had to be.  

How can managers help combat high-functioning depression in the workplace?

Remote working can help to improve the quality of life for many employees and create a better work-life balance. However, remote working can also make it more difficult to monitor whether your team is overworking, and if they’re showing any potential signs of mental health issues. 

Take a look at your team’s culture – could your team be under the impression that they’re always expected to be ‘on’, even outside of working hours? If so, take a frank look at your own attitude and behaviours towards overworking. Are you guilty of sending emails outside of working hours? If so, stopping this can help to reinforce work-life boundaries for the rest of your team. 

Creating a team culture that embraces the work-life balance is one of the biggest steps managers can take towards reducing presenteeism, avoiding burnout-induced absences and promoting open values. Having this time to unwind will also help you and your team to better spot if someone’s mood is markedly different and encourage them to share if they’re struggling.  

What are the signs of high-functioning depression and how do I talk to my team about it?

The symptoms of high-functioning depression can vary from person to person, but here are some warning signs to look out for which could mean that one of your employees is struggling: 

  • They’re finding decision-making more difficult than usual 
  • Their productivity has fallen
  • They’re being more self-critical 

The next step is to make sure that you put some time aside to speak to the employee that you’re concerned about. Starting a conversation about someone’s mental health can feel intimidating, so here are some tips to approaching the subject:

  1. Always use an appropriate setting – ideally, a private meeting room. A recurring one-to-one catch-up can be a natural place and environment to raise concerns.
  2. Remember that they might not feel comfortable to share how they’re feeling – be respectful of their boundaries and try again at a later date. 
  3. Raise concerns early, if you can, as this can help them to seek help that reduces the chances of their symptoms worsening. 
  4. Ask simple, honest and open questions, for example, you could start with: “I’ve noticed that you seem to be finding it more difficult to make decisions at work – I wanted to check if everything is OK with you, and if there’s anything I can do to help you?”
  5. Give them time. Remember, repeating your question can help to make it less intimidating for your employee to share their true feelings, as they might give you what they deem to be the ‘socially acceptable’ response, when you ask the first time. 
  6. Be sensitive and don’t make assumptions. If they become upset, give them time in that feeling and don’t presume anything. 
  7. Once you have the full picture, in the employee’s own words, ask them if they’ve spoken to anyone else about how they’re feeling, and whether they’ve tried getting support in the past. 

Managers aren’t expected to be mental health experts, but if you can take the time to learn some key symptoms of high-functioning depression and feel confident enough to take the steps to talk openly with your employees, this can give you the chance to share suggestions and options to help them from a work standpoint. 

From Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), health insurance, talking to their GP, and free listening services like Samaritans, you can help those with high-functioning depression to seek the support they need to aid their symptoms and improve your team’s long-term successes. 

Naomi Humber
Naomi Humber

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