The Joker in The Workplace - Zupnick Associates

(By Elton Mwangi)

Research shows that depressed employees lose 27 days per year. If you have depressed employees at work, they will be unproductive, absent, secluded, and late – and it’s your job as the HR employee to take note of these behaviors.

Employees get depressed as a result of poor work-life balance, personal finance problems, health conditions, and a toxic workplace, among other factors.

Have you watched the Joker movie? All HR and psychology professionals should watch it as it offers insights into the life of a depressed employee. Joaquin Phoenix, who is the Joker, stars as a troubled man with mental illnesses that affect both his personal life and work.

This article shows the signs of depressed employees at work and how they can be helped.

How to Spot Depressed Employees at Work

Withdrawal from Colleagues

In Joker, we see Arthur suffering from various mental disorders, including depression. He tells his mother that he has never been happy at any moment in his life, even though he is constantly laughing. Another condition he has is the Pseudobulbar Affect. While the movie does not name the disorder, the traits that Arthur portrays are synonymous with the disease. Most notable trait is the problem of laughing or crying during inappropriate times. Because of the condition, his colleagues call him a ‘freak’ and make fun of him. Hence, he is withdrawn and a loner. 

The moment an employee withdraws from friends and colleagues, that can be a sign of depression. They used to attend company events, go to lunch with colleagues, and be a team player. But now they want to be alone both in and out of the workplace.


Arthur works as a clown, but he is attacked by some teenagers who were making fun of him. As a result, he is absent from work for a few days during which he is recovering. When he returns to work, his boss penalizes him for losing a sign, which was destroyed by the attackers. He would deduct his pay. Did the boss care about Arthur’s absenteeism? Of course not. His mental illnesses made him susceptible to attack by children, which resulted in his absenteeism.

Depressed employees at work normally experience absenteeism regularly. If a valuable employee used to be present during all the days of the month, and then all of a sudden, they start going M. I. A., that could be a sign of mental health problems.

They might be so depressed that coping at work becomes difficult.

Loss of Morale

Joker shows a scene where Arthur is performing for sick children at a hospital. He is constantly fumbling in his act, and he tries his best to smile. But do the kids smile? No. While many clowns are good performers, Arthur is not because he lacks the motivation to do his job. In fact, he hates it. He has always wanted to be a stand-up comedian, but he has never succeeded, which depresses him.

Similar to other health issues, depression can cause employees to lack morale and become less productive. When employees are stressed, they can hardly focus at work. As a result, they will take longer to finish tasks or not complete them at all.

Depressed employees at work will experience loneliness and lack the self-drive they used to have.

Behavior Change

The Joker movie is essentially the evolution of the Joker villain we all know from Batman films. Before Arthur undergoes this change, he is fired from his work for carrying a gun to a children’s clinic. It was a dangerous thing to do, but he had reasons for it. He was constantly scared and wanted to feel safe.

A change in behavior is one of the most direct signs of depression in a staff member. In this case, you will notice an employee who is outspoken getting more reserved or a passive one becoming more aggressive.

How to Help Depressed Employees at Work

Provide Flexible Work Options

Quick question: Do you think Arthur would have transformed to Joker if his boss allowed him to be a stand-up comedian for parties? Well, if the employer did this and maybe helped him get medical help, Arthur would have been a happier employee.

Depressed employees at work need to be prioritized when it comes to their mental health. You can help them by making their work more flexible so that they can have sufficient time to solve their problems.

Offer them the chance to work from home. Also, let them choose the tasks they want to do so they can complete them effortlessly. As you reduce their workload, a few days off would help too.

Develop an Open Environment

Arthur should have felt safe to tell his boss about being physically abused in the streets without feeling awkward about it. The boss should not have deducted his salary for his absenteeism, which was caused by his state of mind and the abuse.

Create an office culture where your staff can talk to you about anything. If you are an HR professional who meets with their staff only during performance reviews, then you need to change things.

If employees know that they can come to you with their problems, then you can help them eradicate their levels of stress.

Respect Their Privacy

In Joker, the culture at Arthur’s workplace did not respect the privacy of the employees. Everyone knew what Arthur was going through, and we can see how it affects him to be seen different. It makes him more depressed. The employer should have created a culture where a team member’s privacy was prioritized

When depressed employees at work tell you about their issues, it is your responsibility to keep it confidential. They told you this because they trust you.

And because they trust you, you have a chance to help them with whatever they are facing. If their personal information becomes office gossip, it will make it even harder for them to recover.


Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) costs the US economy about $210 billion annually. The employers are incurring these costs too, and taking immediate action is the only way to move forward.

You need to be alert enough to know who among your staff is suffering from stress and depression. They will not be forthcoming about their issue, so it is upon you to be proactive.

If you can create an environment of openness in the workplace, depressed employees can feel comfortable coming to you for help. But keep in mind that you need to keep their issues confidential and offer them flexibility in their work, among other solutions.

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