At any given time in the United States, an estimated 1 in 10 adults reports symptoms that would qualify for a diagnosis of depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While not all of these diagnoses require a leave from work, it’s estimated that employees in the U.S. who have been diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives contribute to more than 68 million missed workdays each year, according to a July 2013 Gallup poll.

These statistics are staggering, but what’s more is that many employers are uncertain about where to start when helping an employee return to work after a depressive episode. As October is National Depression Awareness Month, consider these ways you can help your employer clients navigate this important but often uncharted territory.

1) Connect with the employer’s disability carrier

A good first step is to connect with the mental health experts at the employer’s disability carrier, if possible. Mental health case managers spend their days helping employees return to work and can offer invaluable insights to ensure an employee’s return to work is successful. This includes understanding the employee’s job role, working with the employee’s medical team and helping an employer with any questions they may have during the process. A beneficial alternative may be to connect with the employer’s employee assistance program.

2) Focus on a plan

Helping an employee return to work successfully involves a plan. Counsel employers to work to find a return-to-work date that makes sense for them and the employee. In addition, the plan should clearly define duties and responsibilities for the employee, especially if the employee is coming back to a temporary job or modified schedule.

3) Encourage communication

Those who haven’t struggled with depression may be afraid of saying the wrong thing or may feel as though they are prying when asking foundational questions to help an employee return to work. It’s important for employers to reach out early and not wait until the day an employee comes back to work to start the communication process. Many employees on disability leave don’t hear from their employer in anything other than an official capacity (letters from HR regarding benefits, etc.). Depression often robs people of their sense of self-worth, and they withdraw. Simply communicating concern and the desire to help the employee back to work can be very meaningful.

Returning to work following a significant episode of depression may seem impossible to an employee. But helping employers prepare for and communicate during this process can help employees return to healthier, more fully functioning lives.

Guardalabene, PsyD, is a mental health case manager with Standard Insurance Company. Before joining The Standard, Guardalabene worked in disability evaluation at a college counseling center and as a psychologist in private practice.

The Standard is a marketing name for StanCorp Financial Group, Inc. and subsidiaries. Insurance products are offered by Standard Insurance Company of Portland, Ore. in all states except New York, where insurance products are offered by The Standard Life Insurance Company of New York of White Plains, N.Y. Product features and availability vary by state and company, and are solely the responsibility of each subsidiary. Each company is solely responsible for its own financial condition. Standard Insurance Company is licensed to solicit insurance business in all states except New York. The Standard Life Insurance Company of New York is licensed to solicit insurance business in only the state of New York.

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