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Hopefully not, but is sometimes (half-jokingly) said that depression is the new back pain. Certainly the prevalence of stress and depression on sick notes seems to have replaced back-pain as the most common form of sickness absence.

Sadly depression is not a joke and much of the back pain reported in past decades may, in fact, have been depression. And if a depressed employee is a key worker, then it is not a joke for you either.

What can you do?

  1. Decide how far you might support the employee. If you are an HR Manager for BAE you may be able to go quite a way. If you are a plumber and the depressed employee is your mate then that is different. Such will impact on your plans (see later).
  2. Get a diagnosis. Depression is often associated with a loss, perhaps a bereavement or some unfulfilled expectation. Most of us get over these events but not all of us do so quickly and telling someone else to do so is counterproductive. Patience may be required. Clinical depression is different and needs to be respected as a disability. So if absence due to depression is continuing then requesting a medical report may be helpful and will show the seriousness with which you are considering the matter. The medical profession can also assess the level of depression and suggest ways in which the employee might tackle it. Clinical depression is comparatively rare.
  3. Have a plan and, essentially, stick to it. Depressed employees can be dismissed, but not hastily. Having some dates (that you may want to vary in the light of ongoing meetings) is helpful. We come across occasions when an unsatisfactory situation has persisted for many months and sometimes years. Failure to set review points often means matters are let slip.
  4. The law expects you to be fair and reasonable and to do this you need a stepped procedure. Arrange to discuss the matter with the employee. Emphasise that the problem is theirs as well as yours. They have to take some responsibility to reduce their absence. If they cannot do that then explain what the consequences might be. If they maintain there is nothing they can do, give them time to reflect on this and meet again. If they promise to improve then give them time to demonstrate this. If there are ways in which you can help (see below), discuss these with the employee. Unless you are taking action against an employee (e.g. issuing a formal warning) there is no automatic right for the employee to be accompanied. The right might apply at a later stage if you are contemplating dismissal.
  5. Consider Occupational Health. For employees with over 4 weeks absence there is a free fit-for-work option (0330 221 0280) that can help you and your employee agree a plan to get your employee back-to-work. That may include a phased return, mediated meetings with management members or amended hours of work. You do not have to accept the Fit for work report but it is likely to help you with some options.
  6. Consider encouraging activities that an employee can do to assist their depression: exercise; social interaction; cognitive behavioural therapy; meditation. You may want to make it clear that if they positively address their problems then you can be more patient.
  7. If you are considering dismissal then give the employee fair warning. They should have the opportunity to know this is a possibility long before you have any final meeting (at which they can be represented.
  8. For employees with an established disability you do need to consider reasonable adjustments. That may mean adjusted hours of work, adjusted responsibilities or tolerating a greater absence pattern. The key word here is reasonable.
  9. Finally remember, irrespective of any claims that may be made against you (typically Tribunal awards are in 5 figures and legal costs can be similar), it costs to replace an employee. In some cases that can be as much as two and a half times their annual salary when everything is taken into account. In most cases it will pay to go the extra mile and, if it doesn’t, little is lost in comparison to what might be lost if you don’t.