You're suffering from depression – should you tell your boss?

By Pieter van Zyl
14 April 2016

Are you suffering from depression? Here’s how to cope at work and get support from your colleagues and boss.

By the age of 39, Richard Hawkey had climbed about as high up the corporate ladder as he could. 

He was senior portfolio manager at a major banking group and as a businessman he’d always been driven,  ambitious, impatient, outspoken and a top achiever. He was never far from his BlackBerry.

But his perfect life wasn’t what it seemed and while on a family holiday the wheels finally came off when one day he couldn’t get out of bed.

“Although I was on holiday I was grumpy and over-sensitive,” Richard recalls. “I had no interest in doing anything and I’d lost my appetite. I was basically responsible for the holiday turning into a disaster.

Read more: What it’s like to love someone who has bipolar disorder

“People think depression is when you cry and withdraw, but sometimes you become ill-tempered and cynical.

“You carry on because that’s what you’re used to doing and what you see others doing, so you think it’s normal. You have exaggerated outbursts of anger and you can become a time-obsessed control freak. And then one morning you find you can’t get out of bed.”

When he arrived home in Johannesburg after their holiday he went to see his GP, who diagnosed depression and referred him to a psychiatrist.

“I left work on a Friday and never went back,” Richard says. He’d shown stress and burn-out symptoms for many years and was finally  forced to get off the hamster wheel – for the sake of his health and to learn how stress is caused and how to manage it.

Today Richard (43) is a writer, speaker and counsellor and he’s completing his master’s degree in applied psychology. In his book, Life Less Lived: A Passage Through Burn Out & Depression In The Suburbs, he tells of his struggle to overcome depression and become productive once again.

“I’m now more productive because I’m also taking care of other aspects of my life. “Living a balanced life is more than eating right and  doing some exercise – it also involves how you think about things and the support systems you have in your life,” Richard says.

Statistics for SA released by Sadag in 2015

Being sad, no longer able to enjoy everyday activities and feeling socially isolated and worthless – these are states of mind usually associated with depression.

Read more: Symptoms of depression

Depressed employees, like Richard once was, may struggle to perform their duties. That’s why it’s important that employers educate their employees about stress and make it easy for depressed staff members to get on top of their condition as soon as possible, says Cassey  Chambers, operations director of the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (Sadag).

A study found a third of people diagnosed with depression prefer not to tell others about it. As there’s still a stigma attached to depression, they fear that if their employers and colleagues know about their condition it might put them at a disadvantage.

Someone who’s depressed struggles to make decisions, concentrate, remember things and solve problems, says Dr Frans Korb, a  Johannesburg psychiatrist and clinical psychologist.

Statistics for SA released by Sadag in 2015

“If an employee is depressed at work they’re five times less productive than an employee who’s at home recovering from depression.”

“You feel trapped. Caged in,” is how Suzie Balfour* (45) from Tzaneen, Limpopo, describes dealing with depression while at work. She took part in the Sadag study. “By the end of the day very little work had been done. Your thinking makes it hard to perform normal everyday tasks, not just office duties.”

“I feel totally exhausted, I get sick all the time and I had to take time off work,” says Bob Miller* (38) from Pretoria, another participant

in the study. “My boss asks me what’s wrong but I can’t talk to him about how overwhelmed I feel and how I struggle to keep my head above water at the office. It’s like admitting that I can’t keep up with the pace at work.

Read more: No-cost ways to treat depression yourself

“It’s frustrating to feel everyone around me can keep up and is happy all the time. It makes me angry and sometimes I feel I want to explode. It seems the only thing that helps is to have a few drinks at night,” Bob says. The most recent estimate of the socio-economic cost of depression worldwide is R1 188 billion, and the figure keeps rising. Depression is the world’s third most common “burden of disease” when the costs of things such as loss of productivity and people committing suicide due to depression are taken into account. Employees are scared to tell their employers about being diagnosed with depression, Sadag founder Zane Wilson says. “People worry their boss will think they’re not working hard enough or that they’re using depression as an excuse.”

After you’re diagnosed with depression

First, discuss the issue with your human resources manager (HRM), advises Dr Hannes Swart, an industrial psychologist from Bellville, Cape Town. The two of you can then talk to your line manager who’ll want to ascertain how your condition will affect his department. The HRM is also the ideal person to continue to monitor the situation.

  • There’s no legal obligation to reveal your diagnosis to your employer, Richard says. “But if you explain your situation to emotionally mature and emphatic leaders it puts them in the best position to make allowances for you – which employers are legally bound to do.”

  • Be aware that depression is a treatable condition and not a life sentence, Richard says. If you get the right treatment soon enough – whether it’s medication and/or cognitive behavioural therapy – you can be as productive as any other employee.

  • It could take up to eight weeks for medication to have any effect, Richard says. Psychopharmacology, or medication for psychiatric conditions, are highly sophisticated these days and the side effects can often be avoided by talking to the doctor prescribing the medicine – the dosage can be changed or you can try alternative medication, Dr Swart says. “I can’t over-emphasise that one of the biggest mistakes is to just take medication and not also go for therapy.”

  • Take a good look at all aspects of your life. A more balanced lifestyle will improve your ability to recuperate.

  • Try to eat as healthily as possible, drink lots of water and do moderate exercise such as going for a walk every day, Richard advises.

  • Join a support group (go to for options). Don’t isolate yourself.
  • Believe that things will get better, Richard says. “But you must find the energy and courage to do this.”

How companies can help

Depression is a personal issue, Dr Swart believes. “I don’t see the point in telling everyone that a person is depressed. Only staff members who are affected need to know about it and how to handle it.”

  • Inform employees about depression and especially how it can affect work performance.

  • Promote a culture where depression and other psychiatric conditions are accepted – they’re no different than diabetes or asthma.

  • If an employee opens up about their struggle with depression, refer them to a mental health specialist and assure them that their condition is treatable.

  • Explore creative ways to help an employee with their recovery – by for instance adopting flexible working hours or letting the person work from home for a while.

  • Beside this, the person should also take time off work for psychiatric or psychological treatment. Sometimes depression can be so severe the person has to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a few days.

This might result in work falling behind or not getting done properly. Once the person is back at the office they might feel overwhelmed by the work that has piled up – it might seem like an impossible task to catch up and get everything up to date. “If the employer doesn’t show  goodwill towards the depression sufferer, there’s a risk of conflict at work – which will have a further impact on the person’s mood because they’d feel even more worthless and guilty,” Cape Town psychologist Dr Rosa Bredenkamp says.

Advice to colleagues

  • Colleagues can educate themselves about depression (go to for information). “Common decency and respect go a long way,”  writer Richard Hawkey says.

  •  They should support the employee and understand which actions, work methods or behaviour can make the depression worse and try to avoid that, says industrial psychologist Dr Hannes Swart.

  • Offer to help your colleague with their duties while they’re being treated for depression, says psychologist Dr Rosa Bredenkamp.

  • Be careful not to be too emphatic because it could make the depression sufferer’s behaviour worse, Dr Bredenkamp warns. It’s therefore important to maintain a good balance. “Because the depression sufferer usually withdraws from people it would be good to involve the person in enjoyable activities and not exclude them.”

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