Battling Depression and Anxiety At Work

We’ve all read the statistics on employee engagement. About 63% of employees are not engaged, which is defined as “sleepwalking through their day, putting in time – but not energy or passion – into their work.” Another 24% are actively disengaged. “Those who are acting out their unhappiness by undermining what their engaged co-workers accomplish.”

Bottom line, nearly twice as many people hate their jobs as love their jobs!

What’s going on?

Depression and anxiety are on the rise across the nation. According to Our World Data, 322 million people worldwide live with depression. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.

I  recently read a book I highly recommend called Lost Connections. The author, Johann Hari explores the real causes of depression and anxiety and uncovers some unexpected solutions. I believe that depression and anxiety often show up in the workplace as being “disengaged.” What I really appreciate is how his findings are founded is solid research, which is REALLY important!

Interestingly, I learned from this book that it’s a relatively small number of people who experience depression and anxiety due to biological causes. The majority of people are impacted by psycho-social causes. There are three of these causes that leaders can influence in the workplace:

  • Meaningful work
  • Other People
  • Status & Respect

Here are some initial thoughts about what leaders can do to address these factors.

  1. Meaningful Work
    • Develop your communication skills. Practice telling stories to personalize your message. When communicating the vision of the company or department, do so in a compelling manner. What makes it compelling? Translate the larger vision down to the work your people do – how their work contributes to that vision. For example, it’s the difference in a bricklayer thinking he is simply laying bricks vs. connecting how his work supports the vision of building a cathedral.
    • Conduct a Personal Engagement discussion. This is a 1:1 conversation you have with each employee to understand what factors, (the content of their work, rewards, culture, flexibility…) are most important to them to be engaged with work and how satisfied they are with the current reality. I recommend this occurs annually.
  2. Connection to Others
    • Take time to get to know people beyond work. Find out about their families, hobbies, vacations, birthdays. Take a genuine interest in them as a PERSON, not simply a team member.
    • Establish a tribe by organizing team-building activities so that everyone on the team gets to know one another on a more personal level.   Encourage collaboration and cross-training so they understand how each person contributes to the team.
    • Write personal notes to thank them for their work, accomplishing a goal, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.
  3. Status and Respect
    • Treat each person with respect. Solicit and listen to their ideas. Ask them for feedback about your leadership. Always use respectful language and demonstrate kindness.
    • Make promotion decisions based on merit.
    • Publicly celebrate successes.
    • Support their development and remove roadblocks.

While these tactics cannot address the full range of causes of depression and anxiety, it’s such a huge issue, that any positive steps are worth taking.

P.S. Johann does an amazing job of summarizing his book in this interview on the podcast 10% Happier.  He also has a Ted Talk you may want to check out as well.

Martha Duesterhoft is a Partner with PeopleResults. Follow her on Twitter @mdusterhoft or connect via email at