How do I know if an employee is faking depression?

Jul 12, 2021 | Workplace

Faking depression, otherwise known as malingering, is easier than faking physical illness because the signs and symptoms are less obvious.  It’s important to thoroughly investigate prior to labelling someone a “malingerer” and indeed, I have seen far too often in my career, employees being accused of malingering because their employer or manager does not understand a mental illness or consider it to be a valid medical condition. At a time such as we find ourselves in currently, when a mental health crisis is looming amidst the covid 19 pandemic, employers and managers more than ever need to be alert to when depression reported by an employee is real and when it might be fake.

faking depression

So why would an employee fake depression at work?  Well, usually for one of three reasons:

  1. To avoid something. This could be an aspect of their job, disciplinary action for poor performance, or having to meet a deadline.
  2. For financial gain such as a disability benefit.
  3. A need for special / extra attention.

As a Line or HR Manager, some of the things that you can look out for (“red flags”) that could suggest malingering include the following:

1.       No professional / specialist intervention sought.  Someone suffering from clinical depression should have consulted with a Psychiatrist and possibly also a Psychologist.

2.       No treatment or no compliance with prescribed treatment.  Someone who is faking will come up with excuses as to why they will not pursue treatment or why they have stopped taking prescribed treatment, whereas someone with real depression will pursue treatment options endlessly in an effort to feel better.

3.       Inconsistencies in different aspects of life.  Investigation often reveals that employees faking depression only talk about and demonstrate signs and symptoms at work – at home and at play they are fine.

4.       Resists intervention in the workplace.  People with real depression usually welcome offers of intervention and accommodation in the workplace whereas fakers tend to resist and become defensive.

5.       Generally poor interpersonal relationships.  People faking mental illness often have other personality characteristics that do not warm them to management or colleagues.

6.       Not willing to talk about it with Management.  Fakers will use the confidentiality card more than employees with real depression, which is often due to fear of being caught out.

7.       Absences with repetitive patterns.  Fakers will tend to take short duration sick leave so as not to have to provide a medical certificate.  The pattern also often reveals absences on either side of weekends and public holidays.  They may also take sick leave during challenging times at work such as when deadlines are approaching.

8.       History of or pending disciplinary action.  As with interpersonal relationships, there are often other obvious factors at play in employees faking depression, such as disciplinary action.


I always suggest that an employee who reports suffering from depression ought to first be believed until such time that it is proven otherwise.  It would be a big, potentially catastrophic mistake for an employer or manager to disregard such a report at first hearing.  The “innocent until proven guilty” approach is best applied in all cases. The red flags tabled above can help as a guideline but advancing understanding and insight into depression and other types of mental illness will also place Line and HR Managers in an advantageous position when it comes to differentiating between real and fake illnesses.  If you are interested, take a look at my workshop, Understanding & Managing Mental Illness in the Workplace.

Take care everyone. Your partner in Mental Health Matters in the Workplace.


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