Coping with Depressed Coworker
August 30, 2006 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Need advice how to cope with a (maybe) depressed coworker.

I work in a small design firm, 7 employees, nice setting, interesting work and a congenial bunch of people. We don't have dinner parties together, but it's nice. New guy comes in a year ago, junior staff, very affable, reasonably hard worker and good designer.

Slowly, over the last 6 months he got quieter and quieter. Now he just plugs into his Ipod.

Not suspecting depression, I thought he had some gripe against me, and two weeks ago I confronted him asking him essentially, "What's the problem". He told me not to take it personally and to be patient; that the project he's doing currently is very technical and not design oriented, so work right now is not fun. He didn't explain the big attitude change, but did hint at depression. The work he's doing right now is going to last at least for another month or two.

The result of this discussion is that he became even more guarded and kind of sad sounding. Except for project discussions with one of the associates, he doesn't say a word all day.

Now that I know that it's nothing I've done, and nothing I can fix, I'm mentally exhausted, since for the last 6 months I adopted a cheerful attitude despite the sullenness. Now I don't want to even talk to the guy except for hello's and goodbye's and "telephone is for you".

My boss told me that a previous employer had discussed his moodiness in a reference.

I don't think this person would take any advice from me, but he might from my boss. Any thoughts about what he should say or do? Seek help? Take a break? Find your next job?

Also, I suspect my attitude is not too helpful.
posted by donp17 to Human Relations (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Is he doing his job?

If so, let it ride.

If his hygiene begins to slip, or he starts having more absences, stuff like that, have the boss ask him to go get checked for depression. Other than that let the guy do his job.

those of us who get depressed but try to gut through use an incredible amount of energy just to survive, leaving us little to none to even try to be sociable. I have been there, done that. The kindest thing you can do is leave us alone as long as we are maintaining our responsibilities.
posted by konolia at 5:17 PM on August 30, 2006

Not to put too fine a point on this, but is there a reason you need to interact with him beyond 'the phones for you'? Is it essential for the project that you are working on that you collaborate? Does he report to you in such a way that his isolation makes providing him with review feedback difficult?

I ask because it really sounds like the guy just wants to do his thing and be left alone. If that isn't a problem with getting business done, maybe just give him his space.

If it is hindering work performance, you may want to try engaging him on different non-work related subjects: "didja see the game last night?", "wasn't last weeks Stargate SG1 hilarious?", "You heard the new album by [insert contemporary band here]?"

Hopefully if you can get some small talk going, you will lay the groundwork for bigger conversations later.

I think the key thing here is not to force it. Ask a simple question and let him respond. If he doesn't, shrug it off.

But really, if there isn't any burning need for you to interact, you might just want to leave him be. It sounds like you are all working on a tough project which will be over in a couple of months. It's possible that things will get better after that.
posted by quin at 5:24 PM on August 30, 2006

Treat people as if they had treated you the way you like to be treated.

If they are bastards, this works particularly well, but I would think it would work for SadGuy also. Just treat him like anybody -- as if you don't notice that he has any attitude problem at all.

I feel better when I am nice, and I figure that doesn't need to be dependent on how the people treat me. What do you care? Why let him get you down?

And obviously he doesn't want to talk about it, so it is probably what he would prefer.
posted by Methylviolet at 5:33 PM on August 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I second konolia. If it isn't harming his work, let him be, and for cripes sake don't go complaining to your boss.

If you really do want to help, build a rapport with him. Go out for drinks after work or engage in a little small talk during lunch. If he does build a rapport with you then you'll be in a better place to help him if he wants it. I doubt that your boss coming up to him and telling him that his attitude is affecting his coworkers will be warmly recieved.

Even if he doesn't enthusiastically take you up on the offer to interact it might be nice for him to know that you care.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:36 PM on August 30, 2006

I think I agree with all of you somewhat. Methylviolet's first sentence is where I'd like my head to be; "as if they had treated you...."

And I also think, hey, he's doing his work...let him do it.

But as I said, this was a big change in character over 6 months ago, and my only other experience with depression was with a parent, and it just got worse.

And as I said, we're only 7 people, so it's hard to hang out in the background.
posted by donp17 at 6:04 PM on August 30, 2006

I work at a small company, and it is easy to understand. Even though you don't hang out a lot, it is almost like a little work family. I would definitely notice if someone were acting strange. I would recommend a little break.
posted by sweetkid at 6:09 PM on August 30, 2006

If he gets his job done, is co-operative in meetings, leave him be, tho invite him out in a group setting if you haven't already done so. Some folk are perculiar in that they like to be invited out, and wont join if not invited.

You don't say how friendly you were before he got quieter. Was there any community before that? Did he go to the bar with you and hang out?

Have you thought he might just not like you?

Don't talk to your boss about this (i don't know how pally you are.) Your boss was wrong to even mention the fact of his previous employer talking about him imo. If he's not fracturing any inter-company laws, drop it, and don't force it with him either. Your boss sounds like someone I wouldnt want to work for.

Some people like to be private. They may not be depressed. Just cos they dont give up their feelings to you or their thoughts shouldnt immediately make them an object of your focus, unless there's other things youve not told us, or just one of those people who seek attention from those of us who just dont want to give it.

If invited and he wants to join you and your friends at a bar, he will. Otherwise (scratch it up) itll just be another person on this planet you will never understand.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 6:25 PM on August 30, 2006

donp17: my only other experience with depression was with a parent, and it just got worse.

Me: unless there's other things youve not told us

Don't get involved except to invite them out. If they don't pick up, drop it. Seriously.

As a precaution: to mention in the future to your boss that youre uncomfortable working with him because he wont capitulate emotionally to you in the workplace could mean the end of your job if he comes off, like you said, at the last minute, very affable, and listen "donp17 has really been pissing me off..." Like i said, you could be mistaking one thing for another.
posted by urbanwhaleshark at 6:46 PM on August 30, 2006

My boss, noticing an uptick in my moodiness and sullen-ness, pulled me into her office and just simply and non-accusingly asked if I was happy at the [name of company.] And asked what she could do to help me be happier. She said it in a way that *could've* been all about The Job Description, but was also an offer to explain any relevant personal situation.

I always liked the way she handled that.
posted by desuetude at 7:14 PM on August 30, 2006


Good points. In this case my boss is one of my closest friends; we've worked together since '88, through marriages and children and such.

The points you've said "one more person you'll never understand" seems like the attitude I've adopted.

But, just in case there something more responsible or thoughtful I should be doing.

Maybe just giving them plenty of space in a respectful way is the responsible and thoughtful thing to do.
posted by donp17 at 8:11 PM on August 30, 2006

My husband does this when he is deep into coding...he is also adult adhd. He lightens up once the coding is done until the next inspiration hits...he is frustrated at the same time obsessed with fixing it...I think he kinda feeds off the challenge/obsession...I have to drag him out every now and then when I realize he hasnt left the place in a few days..just to get out for a bit.

I deal with depression. I just want to be left alone in my misery...I hate you dont leave me.
posted by meeshell at 8:23 PM on August 30, 2006

Wow, this post could have been written about me! (I seriously thought for a second that it was...the only factoids that differ in my situation is that my company has 6 people, and I'm a mediocre designer.

Anyways, I have to concur with those who are advising you not make such a big deal about it. The problem with small companies is that you almost feel compelled to view your fellow co-workers as part of a "family", where everyone is chummy and extroverted and always willing to open up themselves to members of the rest of the family. Unfortunately, the reality is that your little group of coworkers is no more a "family" than the cast of any given season of "The Real World" is. Expecting that it should be can cause more problems and disappointments than is really necessary.

The fact that he responded to you, and tried to explain himself when you confronted him, shows that he's not a sociopath...and he's obviously not a prick or a snob...he's probably just introverted and insecure, like many artist-types tend to be.

That said--as someone who also works in a design oriented field--I also understand that extroversion is a predominant (and almost expected) personality type in this business. But on a pure human level, I think it's just plain wrong to misconstrue "quietness" in and of itself to be a negative trait. It's highly possible that one of the reasons why he became more guarded after your discussion with him is that he now feels added pressure to live up to your--and by inference, the rest of your co-workers'--expectations of how he "should" be acting. This alone can drive some people even deeper into depression, and at the very least can take a huge toll on one's self-confidence.

Now, if he NEVER laughs at things that people say around the office, or if he always blows people off when they talk to him, or if he's bringing *everyone* in the office down, or if the quality of his work is noticeably suffering, then you might have a real problem than needs to be dealt with. But just because he works or acts in ways that might not seem "normal" to you doesn't necessarily mean that there is "advice" that needs to be given to him. I can totally relate to your co-worker, as I'm one of those types who, once knee-deep in a project, tends to get into a mental "zone" that I absolutely HATE being distracted from, because I'm not good at juggling multiple, unrelated things in my brain when there's a task it's trying to solve. Even a ringing telephone will cause me to sneer.

All I can say is that in all of the places I've ever worked (pretty much every single one of these jobs were at tiny, design oriented companies), the ones where I've been happiest and most successful have been the companies where people realized, understood and accepted my painfully shy/introverted nature, yet never made a big deal about it or treated me as if I had some sort of affliction that had to be dealt with. Ironically, those types of people are the very ones whom I end up trusting the most, and tend to be the most extroverted and confident around.

Sorry for the rambling...
posted by melorama at 4:24 AM on August 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

I know it's not a contest, but I think we have a winner.
posted by donp17 at 4:55 AM on August 31, 2006

FYI, It's bad form for an employer to reveal anything about a former employee other than a confirmation of the position they held and the dates that they held it. It was wrong for his former employer to offer this info, wrong of your boss to repeat it to anyone on the team, and no good can come of it being repeated to anyone else.
posted by hermitosis at 6:45 AM on August 31, 2006

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