How to help staff with high-functioning depression


Date: 6 May 2022

A woman suffers depression in the workplace

Spotting high-functioning depression in your employees isn’t easy, especially in a remote working world. Employees can be performing their work responsibilities well, but underneath their professional front they may be struggling with feelings of hopelessness, fatigue, and irritation.

New research by Bupa has revealed a rise in UK employees struggling with their mental health at work, with many turning to Google for advice and support:

  • 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’

Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing at Bupa UK, explores why these search volumes are on the rise and how managers can help to support employees living with high-functioning depression.

What is high-functioning depression?

Dysthymia – sometimes known as high-functioning depression, low-level depression, or persistent depression – is a chronic form of depression that can last for years.  The condition is different to major depression as, although it usually lasts longer, its symptoms are milder.

Those with high-functioning depression may have low self-esteem and feel generally gloomy and inadequate in themselves.  Over time, these feelings may impact their ability to perform daily activities, like working and maintaining relationships.

It’s important to seek treatment for symptoms of high-functioning depression to reduce the chance of future major depressive episodes.

Why is high-functioning depression on the rise?

Studies show that the number of people experiencing high-functioning depression symptoms tripled during the pandemic. High-functioning depression’s symptoms may include feeling hopeless, lacking energy and interest in daily activities, poor sleeping and eating habits and excessive anger.  Although the UK is no longer led by strict COVID restrictions, the ways we coped during that time may have formed feelings and behaviours that still loom.

The pandemic also led to a decrease in the number of sick days taken in the UK. As many workforces have introduced permanent remote or hybrid working, employees may have got into the habit of working when they’re not feeling their best – known as presenteeism.

Overworking employees could have started so for several reasons – for example, because they’re worried that time off may diminish career prospects, or feel that they always need to be contactable, both in and out of working hours – the pressure of which can lead to burnout and further physical and mental health issues.

With remote working more prevalent, managers may find it more difficult to monitor presenteeism, along with signs of mental health issues that could lead to further conditions, down the line. Be sure to encourage your team to log on and off at set times so they have proper time to wind down after work.

How can managers spot symptoms of high-functioning depression in their employees?

As a manager, it is important to be able to spot any tell-tale signs your employee may be struggling. Try to look out for changes in their behaviour – for example, is anyone finding it more difficult to make decisions, has their productivity fallen, or are they being more self-critical than usual?

One of the best things that managers can do to help those with high-functioning depression is to create an open and honest team culture, empowering everyone to share if they’re not feeling at their best.

Whether face-to-face or remotely, be sure to take the time to have regular one-to-one and team catch-ups, where your team can socialise, strengthen relationships, and share how they’re feeling.

Regardless of how open your team culture is, it’s worth remembering that those with high-functioning depression may not always feel comfortable sharing their feelings with everyone. It’s useful for managers to know some of the tell-tale signs that someone may be struggling and try to talk sensitively to your employee about how they’re feeling in an appropriate setting.

How can I speak to employees that are showing symptoms?

If you spot any signs that an employee may be struggling, be sure to raise it with them early on. A one-to-one session can be ideal way to start a conversation, as it’s less likely you’ll be interrupted and can feel more at ease.

Ask questions that are simple, open, and honest, allowing your employee to share anything that they’d like to. For example, you could start by asking: ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve submitted fewer pieces of work recently. I wanted to check whether everything is OK with you and if there’s anything I can do to help?’.

Give the employee time to share their feelings and how they’re affecting them. It can be useful to simply ask the employee how they’re feeling as a way to open up the conversation, and then ask them the same question again. You may find that the response is different the second time you ask – with the first response being the version the employee feels is socially acceptable to share.

Your employee may find sharing their feelings upsetting, so make sure not to rush them or make assumptions. Once you have the full picture, ask whether they’ve spoken to anyone else about what they’re going through, and if they’ve tried to seek support.

From here, you can work together to address any work-related difficulties and put forward suggestions and options to help, along with making them aware of support options available, like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) or health insurance, along with talking to their GP, or free listening services like Samaritans.

From here, you can check in with your employee to see if they’re feeling comfortable and ask them what they’d like to happen to next. Make sure that you’ve got another catch-up scheduled and remind them that they’re always welcome to talk to you in the meantime, if needed.

Copyright 2022. Featured post made possible by Naomi Humber, Head of Mental Wellbeing at Bupa UK

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