I first noticed our art director’s performance start to slip a few months after she came back from maternity leave. At first, she had been her usual self: sharp, dedicated, punctual, funny. She seemed to be handling the transition back to the office well. Then she began coming in late and walking straight to her office instead of chatting with the rest of us over coffee in the kitchen. When we started working on a major ad campaign with a sneaker retailer, our small firm’s biggest client, she was consistently late with the layouts and her ideas just didn’t seem as inspired as usual. Then, she missed an important internal review meeting and I really started getting annoyed. A quarter of our annual revenue was riding on this campaign. I decided I needed to talk with her about her performance and started steeling myself for the discussion.

Later that day, on a client presentation call, she seemed withdrawn. She usually explained her storyboards at length but her explanation was flat and cursory, so the copywriter had to take up the slack. In fact, she seemed to have trouble looking her co-workers in the eye. Advertising can be a very demanding business, but it seemed that whatever was bothering her was beyond work-related stress.

I remembered how desperately down and anxious my sister-in-law had felt when she had postpartum depression, and that she kept her feelings bottled up instead of seeking help. Of course, I didn’t really know what was going on with our art director, but I felt bad for having been quick to judge. I had a business to run and I needed her to produce work, but she was a loyal employee and she didn’t seem to be doing well. We could find other ways to cover her workload if need be.

I went to HR to talk through what was happening, understand what was legally required, and see what services we could provide her. I learned that:

  • 7% of all Americans will suffer from depression at any given time. Speaking with underperforming employees earlier on will save the company costs in the long run and may help those who are depressed get faster relief.
  • The American Disabilities Act states that employers must make reasonable accommodations for an employee suffering from major depression, barring undue hardship to the company.
  • Employees with depression are unlikely to come forward. The disease makes them withdraw and feel anxious and worthless. Simultaneously, they may be ashamed that they can’t control what, on some level, they know to be irrational thoughts. In addition, they are likely very aware that there’s still a stigma around depression, and reporting their condition may result in judgment or repercussions.
  • When discussing performance problems that may be related to personal issues, be caring and practice active listening, but steer away from giving medical advice or discussing details of the employee’s personal life; not only is it irresponsible for non-physicians to give medical counsel, you may leave the company open to liability. Instead, focus on the worker’s performance, their value as an employee, and your interest in getting them assistance.
  • Our Employee Assistance Plan provider would be a good resource for her, as they help employees deal with a variety of personal issues, including mental health.

I set up a meeting with our art director. When she entered my office she looked pretty spooked, like she was expecting to get fired. I told her that I’d noticed she’d been coming in late and missing deadlines and that this wasn’t like her. I didn’t know if there had been anything personal that might be affecting her performance but we had confidential programs that could help. She didn’t say much. “I think something is wrong,” she said. “I don’t feel like myself.”  She seemed to be holding back, but I didn’t want to push her. I was tempted to mention my sister-in-law’s postpartum depression, but it wasn’t my place. I did tell her that I really valued her as a colleague and wanted to get her assistance if needed. I suggested she take some time to think and visit HR if needed. She said “Thank you,” and smiled. I was glad to see that she seemed relieved.

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