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Three Ways to Combat Rising Employee Depression

COVID-19 Weekly Culture Pulse Survey: April 13-17, 2020

After three weeks of gauging employee depression during our weekly pulse surveys, results indicate that over 60% of employees are experiencing at least some level of depression.


It’s not a stretch to think a pandemic that uproots normal work life could cause feelings of anxiety and depression with employees. It’s also understandable that those feelings might even intensify as the COVID-19 crisis looms forward.

Author Elizabeth Wurtzel observed, “That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight.”

It may indeed be the case, that just three weeks into this crisis, the end is not yet in sight. But that doesn’t mean that there are not actions employers can take to help employees fend off the negative effects that feelings of depression in the workplace can trigger.


The negative outcomes of workplace depression


Depression is bad for employees. Becoming overwhelmed with too many negative emotions can certainly be unhealthy. It can also lead to undesired results for the organization. We uncovered several measures that illustrate how employee depression can lead to adverse outcomes. Below are some of the most compelling:

112% increase in fearfulness at the organization

65% decrease in engagement

18% increase in the employee’s intention to leave the organization

67% decrease in employee Net Promoter Score (NPS)

Multiple factors can compound the effects as well. For example, employees that self-identify as a minority had a 20.63% greater incidence of depression. Those who felt their organization had decreased in transparency had an 18.95% greater chance of depression. Finally, and not surprisingly, employees facing severe exhaustion had a 93% greater incidence of depression.

From week 1 to week 3 of our COVID-19 study, the number of individuals experiencing depression jumped from 51% to 60.6%.


Three strategies to diminish the rate of depression


In our research on employee engagement during the crisis, we applied a shortform scale to measure depression (Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale – Short Form). On this scale, we identified anyone scoring a 10 or higher as being at risk for depression—or depressed in the short term.

From week 1 to week 3 of our COVID-19 study, the number of individuals experiencing depression jumped from 51% to 60.6%. This indicated a substantial increase in the those feeling hopelessness as the crisis advanced.

We also looked for behaviors that could reduce the flow of negative emotions employees are feeling during this time of crisis. Our research identified several key strategies that leaders can employ to curb the rate of depression in their organizations. Our top three suggestions include:

1. Encourage a work/life balance


This may sound like a simple solution for leaders. Yet this common remedy was shown to have a significant impact on the rate of depression across all major compounding factors (minorities, essential workers, remote workers, and nonremote workers).

The numbers speak for themselves. When employees reported they had achieved a successful work/life balance during the COVID-19 crisis, they were 63% less likely to be depressed. Employees need to feel they can escape work to focus on other parts of their personal life.

2. Foster open and frequent dialogue


Another best practice is to encourage open, frequent dialogue between leaders and employees. Our research continually demonstrates that regular and meaningful one-to-one conversations lead to stronger outcomes for the leader, team, and the employee.

Employees that reported frequent one-to-one conversations with their supervisor were 77% less likely to be depressed. Additionally, they were more likely to be engaged, more likely to feel supported by their organization, and more likely to harbor a greater future sentiment about their workplace culture.

3. Give timely recognition often


Recognition is a time-honored tool to improve workplace culture. It also makes a significant impact on employee wellbeing. Our research found that employees who had been recognized in the past seven days experienced an impressive 84% reduced rate of depression. Those recognized within the past 30 days also felt a significant impact, with a 48% reduced rate of depression.

In addition to exhibiting less depression, those who were recognized in the past month also reported 44% less burnout, 63% more engagement, and a 302% increased perception of organizational support. Conversely, employees who had not been recognized in more than 30 days were 77% more likely to be depressed.

The verdict is clear. Recent recognition plays a highly significant factor in helping to lessen employee depression.


Leaders can help employees see the positive


Fear of the future, new work environments or conditions, higher expectations, and exhaustive work schedules can all contribute to feelings of depression. From the data we have compiled, leaders absolutely can employ strategies to lessen the rates of employee depression during a time of crisis. By fostering a work/life balance, keeping the communication lines open, and continuing to recognize employee achievements, leaders can help employees feel more positive feelings until the end of the crisis is in sight.


Stay tuned to our COVID-19 weekly culture pulse surveys for insights that will help your organization to weather the storm.

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