Yesterday we addressed the issue of holiday gift giving in the workplace. Today we look at another side to the holiday season… depression.
It’s that time of year again: caroling, Charlie Brown, trees, mistletoe, shopping, and family. All the good stuff, right? For most people, that’s true. But for some people, the holidays are a time of sorrow and loneliness. And for people with clinical depression, they can be especially trying. As an employer, you’re in a bit of a bind ― while the holiday blues are temporary, ongoing depression isn’t, and clinical depression likely qualifies as a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Lifting spirits without increasing liability
How do you tell the difference between the blues and depression? You may not be able to, which means that if you’ve got an employee who seems particularly down as the holiday season bears down on him, you need to be very sensitive; you might be dealing with a disability that requires accommodation. How do you avoid a misstep when you can’t ask the employee if he’s been diagnosed with depression? It isn’t easy, but here are a few suggestions that might make your task ― and your employee’s ― a little easier.
Make your office holiday festivities truly optional
Lots of employers require attendance at holiday parties, while others claim they’re optional but really expect their employees to be there. Also, many workplaces have other holiday activities that everyone’s expected to join in, such as adopting a family for Christmas or coming together to decorate an office Christmas tree. Don’t get me wrong, all of those things are great . . . but do yourself and your employees a favor by making sure everyone knows that the events really are optional and that no action ― formal or informal ― will be taken if they don’t attend.
For employees with depression, whether permanent or situational, gearing up for festivities can be very difficult. When everyone around them is bubbly and joyous, they may feel isolated and have increasing feelings of sadness. And while they may be able to pull off the appearance of feeling fine, they might not be able to stay “up” for a five-hour shindig. If you have an employee dealing with clinical depression, excusing him from the annual holiday festivities would certainly qualify as a reasonable accommodation ― so make it, without being asked. Your employees probably all want to join the party, but some of them simply can’t.
Don’t try to spread the holiday spirit
Lots of people respond to people who are sad and withdrawn ― especially around the holidays ― by trying to cheer them up and getting them to share in the happiness. But when people are depressed, your efforts aren’t going to work. And if you’re the employer, chances are they’ll feel pressured to buck up and join in because their boss wants them to. Instead, give them some space, and let them decide what they’re capable of when it comes to holiday festivities.
You’re not a doctor, so don’t try to play one in the office
Thanks to the Internet, the world is at our fingertips. As a result, lots of us feel like we know a little something about many, many things. Maybe we do. But no amount of self- diagnosing on WebMD makes you qualified to tell your employees that they’ve got depression . . . or that they don’t.
If your employee has a medical condition that he wants you to know about, he’ll tell you. Don’t try to diagnose one for him. Whether you’re right or wrong, he’ll likely resent your “diagnosis.” What’s more, it can land you in legal trouble. Even if the employee isn’t depressed or disabled under state or federal law, he may now be able to claim that you regarded him as disabled ― a protected class under antidiscrimination laws. React to his behavior if it’s appropriate, but don’t try to categorize it as a medical condition.
Don’t worry, be happy?
Whatever you do, don’t tell a depressed employee to act happy. Really, this stuff actually happens! I’m aware of employees suffering from depression who’ve been instructed to act happy in the workplace because their apparent unhappiness was affecting others. If you have an employee who is suffering from clinical depression, you’ve essentially just told him that he needs to hide his disability at work.
You don’t have to have a workplace full of people moping around. And generally, it’s OK to have your employees check their personal issues at the door when they come to work. But unless your employee is Julie the Cruise Director, chances are that “maintaining employee morale” isn’t an essential function of the job. If she’s in a service industry in a position that involves working with the public, you might be able to claim that an outgoing and upbeat personality is a qualification for the position. But generally, acting happy isn’t an essential job function, and you can’t require a depressed person to be happy without running afoul of antidiscrimination laws.
It’s difficult for anyone without medical training to tell the difference between seasonal blues and clinical depression. One requires accommodation under state and possibly federal law, and the other doesn’t. But since you probably won’t know the difference, it’s safest to avoid taking any steps that might be considered a refusal to accommodate while you’re learning about the situation. You don’t want to find yourself facing a discrimination charge that could have been avoided relatively simply. So consider accommodating your employees with the gift of a pressure-free holiday season (at least on the social front). If it helps avoid a possible claim, it’ll turn out to be a gift for you, too!
This article first appeared on HRHero.com on November 22, 2012. For more information, contact Prestige or check out the following articles:
A Guide To Managing Employees With Holiday Depression And Stress
How to not let holiday blues color your job
In the bleak midwinter: When holiday blues linger, talking about it can help
How to fight off the post-holiday blues
Coping with the Holiday Blues
Beating the Holiday Blues