Fight the black dog

“I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth. Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.”

--Abraham Lincoln, on his state of mind

In ancient Greece, Hippocrates called it melancholia. In the 1780s, Samuel Johnson dubbed it “the black dog,” as Winston Churchill famously referred to it when it bit him and repeatedly so.

By the 1860s, it was appearing in medical texts as depression and that name—and its stigma—has stuck.

And both the disease and the tarnish it attaches to depressed persons through no fault of their own continue to bedevil those sufferers and to bewilder all those affected by them, including their colleagues in the workplace.

Depression that is a medical condition that severely brings down a sufferer’s mood, is long-lasting and lacks a manic component is specifically diagnosed today as Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and known less formally as major or clinical depression.

No matter what it’s called, MDD takes a huge bite out of the life of a person unlucky enough to be afflicted with it. And despite being a widespread illness in an era when personal medical issues are no longer swept under the rug at any cost to the patient, depression remains a condition that can stain a sufferer’s reputation, especially on the job, even when he or she is actively engaged in receiving treatment for the disease.

Per the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), major depression is “characterized by a combination of symptoms that interfere with a person's ability to work, sleep, study, eat, and enjoy once-pleasurable activities… An episode of major depression may occur only once in a person's lifetime, but more often, it recurs throughout a person's life.”

If that definition is not enough to give one pause, consider this medical fact stated by NIMH: “Major depression is disabling and prevents a person from functioning normally.”

That’s it in a nutshell (and no pun intended!) when it comes to depression dragging its ugly self into the workplace. Because it is a disabling illness, its sufferers who are employed can be protected from negative treatment on the job by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

However, it should be noted that such employees are not protected under ADA unless or until they self-disclose to their employers that they are suffering from depression.

That is one very good reason why employers should train supervisors on how to recognize employees suffering from depression.

The other very good reason—besides of course good old-fashioned human kindness—to instruct supervisors thusly is to enable them to work closely and positively with depressed workers so that the loss of productivity and/or of carefulness (brought on by the fatigued thinking often characteristic of depression) will not unduly harm the quantity or quality of work that must be performed by the sufferer and his or her work colleagues.


Abraham Lincoln knew the black dog all too well.

Productibity and safety go hand-in-glove in both the truck cab and in the maintenance shop. Drivers who are depressed may have trouble keeping a schedule and/or be more likely to make critical "thinking" errors while behind the wheel as well as perhaps to be drowsy due to the uneven sleep patterns and insomnia that often accompanies depression.

Likewise, in the shop depressed mechanics and techs may have difficulty getting to work on time and then with working to established quality and quantity standards. Thieir clouded thinking may also cause them to make errors as well their drowsiness might.

And do not neglect to consider that "back office" employees and "front office" managers can be stricken with depression and see their productivity and critical thinking skills debilitated as well.

Should you think none of this applies to your workplace, think again.

Much like alcoholics, most depressives don't go around broadcasting their illness until it becomes unbearable for them to function as demanded at work and they have to speak of it to a supervisor. Or they get called on the carpet one time too many for performance failures that they know were not intentional nor entirely under their control and feel they must at last speak up on their own behalf.

And don't be fooled by the TV commercials and website and print ads for antidepressants that almost always feature attractive if depressed women in their 30s and 40s. Yes, depression is more common among women than men, but men-- including the likes of Lincoln and Churchill-- are afflicted too, as are children and adolescents.

If raw numbers are your thing, then chew on these stats from Satelllite Corp., a depression-treatment provider:

1) MDD is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and established market economies worldwide.

2) MDD affects approximately 9.9-million American adults, or about 5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.

3) Nearly twice as many women (6.5%) as men (3.3%) suffer from MDD each year. Those numbers translate to 6.7-million women and 3.2-million men.

4) MDD can develop at any age, but the average age at onset is the mid-20s [right when most workers are in the ealry throes of establishng their careers no less].

As for what first-line supervisors and fleet managers can do about fighting Churchill's black dog in their workplaces, first get up to speed on the signs and symptoms of depression.

According to NIMH, those suffering from depression do not all experience the same symptoms. And the severity, frequency and duration of symptoms will vary depending on the individual and his or her particular illness.

NIMH lists these as symptoms of depression:

Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" feelings

Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism

Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness

Irritability, restlessness

Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex

Fatigue and decreased energy

Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions

Insomnia, early–morning wakefulness, or excessive sleeping

Overeating, or appetite loss

Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts

Pretty daunting list, isn't it? Try to imagine having just a few of those symptoms dogging you every step of your day and night and you just might be able to imagine but slightly what a sufferer of MDD is battling-- and not just at work, but 24/7.

What can supervisors and managers do to help? The first and most important step that can be taken is to try to suggest that an obviously depressed worker seek out a diagnosis and treatment.

Steps that can be taken to offer support to afflicted persons, notes NIMH, include:

Offering emotional support, understanding, patience and encouragement.

Engage the depressed person in conversation and listen carefully.

Never disparage feelings expressed, but point out realities and offer hope.

Never ignore comments about suicide and report them to the patient's therapist or M.D.


Major depression is more than feeling "blue." It is a debilitating illness that requires medical treatment.

A very extensive guide to understanding and treating depression can be found on the NIMH website.

Do yourself and everyone who works for you or with you a favor and review the NIMH guide.

By doing so, you might just take a bite out of that horrific black dog... and even perhaps help save a life.