Breaking taboos around depression and mental health

Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

What makes the issue of mental health so complex is that – unlike bruises or broken bones – it concerns a hidden 3 pound mass of high-speed neurons that every now and then forgets to update its software. 

Indeed, concentrating, communicating, juggling tasks, and handling customers and colleagues can be an exhausting experience when suffering from mental illness. Yet, on the whole, most people who struggle with their mental health would still prefer to remain employed. This begs the question: are companies well-equipped to properly handle delicate psychological matters, such as depression?

And, considering that Serbia, our primary country of operations, has the highest risk of depression both for men (39% at risk) and for women (46%) in comparison to the other European countries, this conversation has been a long time coming. 

Ending the stigma: what is depression really?

People usually associate depression with emotions such as sadness or grief, but, in fact, more often it has more to do with the feeling of nothingness and lack of purpose – there is a difference between feeling depressed and having depression. Neither is much fun, but the latter in particular needs careful attention. 

In its mild form, think of it as a large gray hinterland beneath an outward surface of resilience: those suffering may feel exhausted, tearful, beyond the sympathetic understanding of others, easily irritated and daunted by the simplest of tasks. Although cases of mild depression might not be clinically serious, as anyone engulfed in it will tell you, it can still be incredibly debilitating. However, should people start to feel extreme, most paralyzing urges to ‘disappear from the face of the earth’, clinical psychiatry and medication is absolutely necessary (and often effective). 

The causes of depression aren’t easily understood. It is believed that the best explanation for it is caused by a combination of factors, such as underlying genetic predispositions as well as brain chemistry imbalances, hormones, seasonal changes, stress and trauma.

Of course, we also have to consider environmental triggers, which have the potential to make everyone susceptible to feelings of depression. Triggers can be many: an intimate rejection (by a family member, friend, or partner), humiliation around work, feeling badly misunderstood, unfairly criticized, or the growing realization that the ambitious plans of earlier years have come to very little, to name a few. 

“People still think that it’s shameful if they have a mental illness,” explains Andrew Solomon for TedTalks. “They think it shows personal weakness. They think it shows a failing. If it’s their children who have mental illness, they think it reflects their failure as parents.” 

Unfortunately, depression still feels very taboo. Despite the commendable efforts of the World Federation for Mental Health to raise awareness, educate, and advocate against social stigma around the globe, societies slyly tend to insist on cheerfulness, which is why a lot of people end up not only struggling but also feeling ostracized.

The thing is, depression is not an uncommon problem. More than that, it’s not wrong.

The reasons for depression in the workplace

As of 2017, according to data from the IHME’s Global Burden of Disease, about 13% of the global population – some 971 million people – suffer from some kind of mental disorder. Among those numbers, depression is a common mental disorder with more than 300 million people of all ages affected by it.

There are many biological and societal reasons which can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression, but the workplace is full of triggers in itself. We have counted a total of 7 reasons as to why employees might develop depression (with our own little commentaries):

  • Being the wrong fit. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you’re constantly adjusting to a company culture that just doesn’t seem to suit you, it can create a sense of isolation, which also might lead to depression.
  • Feeling trapped. We know choosing a job isn’t like choosing ice cream flavors, but if you feel like you are doing a job you can’t leave for some reason, it can still cause harm to your mental health. In such cases, ask yourself this: is this career really worth pursuing compared to my mental well-being?
  • The guilt of being a working parent. Keeping the balance between spending enough time with your children and keeping a roof over your family’s head is not only difficult, but it can even be damaging if employers do not take work-life balance seriously.
  • Financial issues. The persisting stress of having to worry about low pay or handling unexpected expenses can also feel quite debilitating. 
  • Unreasonable demands. We’ve all been in situations where we had to work extra and overtime. But if this dynamic endures, it can interfere with your private life and, thus, your mental health, too.
  • Low morale. Failing to find a sense of collective purpose is, no doubt, a big contributor to workplace depression. It’s best to find a new line of work if you feel like you are stuck in a rut. 
  • Bullying at work. There is nothing more damaging than forcing someone to feel worthless or small at work. We do not tolerate this type of behavior. 

No matter what, we’re all in this together

Supporting someone with depression isn’t always easy. Frankly, it can be a thankless task because the words of consolation and support might not always be interpreted as we intended them (which can be counterproductive as well as demotivating), and your words may not have any visible effect at all. But showing up is important. 

Unless you’re a qualified psychiatrist, it’s not up to you to offer a course of treatment. All we can do is educate ourselves on how to help them better manage their symptoms, spend their flat days without any stress and support their solutions on getting to grips with their diagnosis. 

The act of offering support doesn’t necessarily mean giving instructions or even feeling the need to empathize (indeed, I’ve been told on multiple accounts that when people say “I know exactly what you’re going through – you ought to try….” it acts as an irritant, not a comfort). Mostly, it’s about being available to listen (and, yes, saying things like ‘get over it’ or ‘it’s all in your head’ does more harm than good). Instead, maybe make them some tea and ask them how their day was. Ask them how you can support them. After all, everyone’s depression is unique. 

At Content Insights, we deeply care for our employees and want to help those who are suffering to feel comfortable with their condition. That’s why we believe establishing open communication without stigmatization is paramount.

While it’s always important to direct people with depression (or any other mental disease for that matter) to medical professionals, managers, HR departments, and colleagues in general can also play their part – however small – in making them feel accepted and understood. Fail to do so, and it can lead to a cascade of unnecessary problems.

Remember, if you cannot help people suffering from depression, then at least try not to hinder their efforts to do the same. The most important thing is to avoid making them feel inadequate. Unseen illness is a tricky one to deal with, and with chronic conditions, the road to recovery isn’t always linear – there will be ups and downs. A gentle hand helps enormously through those tricky days.

How do we handle a case of depression at Content Insights?

The one thing that drives depressed people in a downward spiral is the inability to speak up to the manager or person in charge of employees – an issue that’s quite common for many companies in Serbia. We are not like that. We leave our doors wide open for these types of conversations because we fully understand that being able to nurture and sustain a healthy private life reflects remarkably on the performance at work.

“We recognize everyone’s battles are different,” explains Alex, our Head of People Operations, “but whatever those battles, employees should know that we’ve got their back.”

That is why our company offers various meaningful benefits, such as paid sick leave and unlimited vacation days, that serve to help employees recover after a bereavement or trauma. After all, the issues of mental health should not put an end to your career. 

Our HR department upholds these following tenets when it comes to addressing the issues of mental health:

  • We do not define a person by his or her mental illness
  • We separate the problem from the person 
  • We think the problem is not a choice of wording, but lack of communication altogether
  • Regardless of mental health differences, everyone can contribute
  • We believe humor helps because there is comedy to every tragedy and laughter heals the brain

But our ultimate takeaway is this: you might not be massively keen on brushing your teeth, but fail to do so, and your teeth will pay the price. Literally the same goes for your mental health. 

So don’t forget to floss your mind every now and then!

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