Team Depression: a recipe for first aid

An interesting parallel occurred to me the other day during a conversation at work: the mood of a team is subject to changes, just as that of an individual, and sometimes depression can set in. So, just as we can learn techniques to fight of depression in ourselves, maybe we can do the same within our teams.

It became clear to me a few weeks ago that my team was in the doldrums: we had come to the end of several significant pieces of work, but had released this work with very little fanfare, which led to a feeling of deflation; furthermore, our future workload was both daunting in size and vague in scope, with few clear short-term goals, which gave us a sense of listlessness; in the past few months, several really talented team members had left us, and we hadn’t yet managed to to find a new dynamic for the team, so we had lost the buzz that comes when collaboration becomes second nature; finally, a raft of factors beyond our control meant that we kept finding our work blocked, which just added another layer of frustration.

I had recently taken on the role of team lead, which meant not only that these issues became a particular problem for me, but also that I had an opportunity as primus inter pares to do something about this. In working to find a way out of this morass, I came to a realisation: I had been here before, and I already knew how to deal with it.

A rich seam of depression runs through my family, and it has been part of my life since childhood. In the past few years I have pushed it into remission, and it rarely raises its head now. However, from time to time I do catch the onset of a spell of depression, and I have identified a set of first-aid techniques that I can use to stop it developing further. Many of these techniques—regular exercise and fresh air, early nights, cutting down on alcohol, making time to read and relax—seem simple and obvious, but these are just the habits that can get sidelined when depression sets in, so I have to treat them as a strict regime and push myself to follow them. The result of this is incredibly effectively for me.

Here are my key actions in fighting the signs of depression:

  • I have identified and look out for the early warning signs, so I know when I need to take action
  • When I spot these signs, I acknowledge that the situation warrants special behaviour, even if this means putting other priorities on hold
  • I have identified specific behaviours that I know help me recover
  • I stick with these behaviours until I am back on an even keel

This brings me back to my team’s situation. Of course, the ideal is to develop good everyday habits that keep depression at bay, but while we work on that, we may well find ourselves slipping into the doldrums occasionally. It seems to me that all four of these actions can apply to a team just as readily as to an individual.

I would be interested to hear other people’s experiences of dealing with lapses in team mood, as well as thoughts on how these ideas fit with various codified working patterns. Please share your ideas!

6 thoughts on “Team Depression: a recipe for first aid

  1. Two things you can do that will help promote a good working environment at work, one is to manage stress levels and openness within your team – an idea of the structure you can put in place can be found at, and the other thing is to get your company to pledge its support for good mental wellbeing by signing up to the Time to Change ‘organisational pledge’ – join companies such as BT, EON, British Gas…

    1. Peer, I think these are very helpful suggestions, and it is certainly true that the overall mood of a team will be strongly influenced by that of its members, and that, putting aside our ethical responsibility to look after our colleagues/friends/employees, there are strong business reasons to do this.

      However, the intended focus of this piece was not on the individual mental health of team members, but on the idea that the collective mood of a team can be considered in similar terms to the individual mood of a person, and that techniques that can be useful for managing the latter could perhaps be applied to the former. If you like, I’m using individual mood as a metaphor for team productivity, and musing on whether that metaphor can be stretched to cover remedial action.

  2. One of the things that struck me while reading your post (which I really enjoyed) is that you were talking from a very personal perspective and yet you’re talking about a team. In your personal life it sounds as though you’ve needed to develop an acute awareness of your feelings at the exclusion of others – I interpreted what you’ve written above not to mean that you haven’t others who could help, but that you didn’t want to rely on them preferring to train yourself.

    I think the approach to take within a team is to concentrate on building an environment in which people can easily air their perceptions, either of individuals or the team as a whole. I also feel though that if people are to do that, they should understand that they need to do it in such a manner that they test their assumptions. To use your example above I’d expect you to be testing your feelings with the other team members and that once you’d reached a consensus, agreeing to make changes that you all feel happy with together. In my mind, this should be happening continually and not be the reserve of retrospectives.

    Hope that helps. Dan.

    1. Dan, you make some perceptive and interesting points here; thank you!

      You are right to identify a tendency to self-reliance in the way I address my own moods, but this is only part of the story; I would identify two other, interrelated, factors as being equally or more important.

      First, I have developed—through both psychotherapy and discussion with family and friends—fairly decent skills in introspection and self-awareness, which mean that I’m in a position to notice changes in my mood before they become evident to others, even those closest to me.

      Secondly, many of the changes I describe are to things I have the most directly control over, even if some—changes of routine, for example—do require the cooperation of others.

      Your points about building a culture of openness and encouraging the challenging of assumptions seem to me to offer a team-focused analogue to these individual habits of introspection and self-awareness, and tally well with a culture of collective responsibility. I expect that, just as it took time and experience for me to start to develop the individual skills—and I recognise that this work continues—, it will be an incremental process to achieve this within a team, and I know there is much work and learning to be done.

  3. When the mood at my last workplace got that bad, I realised that the place was not going to change and I quit to find a better team to work with. Best decision I had made in ages and I felt a 100 times better for it. After giving my notice, it was like I had been released from under a heavy weight.

    1. Pervez, I’m sorry to hear that you found yourself in such a dysfunctional situation, and glad that you were able to move on from it. Thank you for bringing this up here, as I think it’s an excellent illustration of one of the risks when problems with team mood are not addressed successfully.

      I think it’s an important responsibility of anyone who has a say in the running of a team—whether the team have a hierarchical structure with a lead or manager, or a more collaborative setup with collective responsibility—to look out for problems of this sort, and do what they can to avoid letting them reach a point where team members start quitting. There’s also a horribly beguiling temptation to start imagining that the causes of this dysfunction sit with individual people, and that things could improve if only they could be encouraged to move on. The consequences of such a mindset can easily be imagined.

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