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The Impact of Depression in the Workplace

Article provided by the Mental Health Association in San Diego

Clinical depression affects employees at all levels of the corporate ladder. It ranks among the top three workplace problems, following family crisis. At any one time, one in every 20 employees experiences depression. An estimated 200 million workdays are lost each year due to employee depression. Depression tends to affect people in their prime working years and, if left untreated, may last a lifetime.

Many things can contribute to clinical depression. For some people, a number of factors seem to be involved, while for others a single factor can cause the illness. Oftentimes, people become depressed for no apparent reason. Causes include:

  • Biological - People with depression typically have too little or too much of certain brain chemicals, called "neurotransmitters." Changes in these brain chemicals may cause or contribute to clinical depression.
  • Cognitive - People with negative thinking patterns and low self-esteem are more likely to develop clinical depression.
  • Gender - Women experience clinical depression at a rate that is nearly twice that of men.[1] While the reasons for this are still unclear, they may include the hormonal changes women go through during menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Other reasons may include the stress caused by the multiple responsibilities that women have.
  • Co-occurrence - Clinical depression is more likely to occur along with certain illnesses, such as heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and hormonal disorders.
  • Medications - Side effects of some medications can bring about depression.
  • Genetic - A family history of clinical depression increases the risk for developing the illness.
  • Situational - Difficult life events, including divorce, financial problems or the death of a loved one can contribute to clinical depression.

Studies shows that people with depressive symptoms spend more days in bed than do people with diabetes, arthritis, back problems or lung problems. Each year, depression costs the U.S. economy $43.7 billion dollars, including $31.3 billion for indirect costs, such as decreased productivity and lost work days, and $12.4 billion in direct costs, such as medication and physician time.

Unfortunately, many employees with depression don't seek the treatment they need. According to a 1996 survey of employee assistance professionals, some common reasons employees do not seek treatment is that they believe they can handle it on their own, are unaware they have depression, have concerns about employee confidentiality policies, or believe their health insurance will not cover treatment

Depression in the workplace often manifests itself in a variety of ways, including decreased productivity, morale problems, lack of cooperation, excessive fatigue, unexplained aches/pains, safety problems and accidents, or excessive absenteeism. This can also manifest through alcohol and/or drug abuse.

Other symptoms of depression include*:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or "empty" mood
  • Sleeping too much or too little, middle of the night or early morning waking
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss, or increased appetite and weight gain
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment (such as chronic pain or digestive disorders)
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Feeling guilty, hopeless or worthless
  • Thoughts of suicide or death

*People who possess five or more of these symptoms for two weeks or more could have clinical depression and should see their doctor or a qualified mental health professional for help.

If you are an employer, supervisor or colleague, you can help people with depression by educating employees at all levels about depression and recognizing that it's a common medical illness that is treatable in more than 80 percent of all cases. You can also identifying national and community organizations that can provide help, such as the National Mental Health Association, and obtaining and distributing their information to all employees.

In addition, training supervisors and colleagues to recognize the symptoms of depression while emphasizing that although they can/should not diagnose the illness, will help refer people to an employee assistance professional (EAP) counselor or other mental health professional, if appropriate. Other steps to help include ensuring employees that state/federal law and EAP policy dictates employee confidentiality, unless there is a risk of harm to oneself or others and making sure that employee health benefits include mental health treatment.

Lastly, ensuring management is understanding and supportive of employees with depression is vital to employees seeking help. This might include setting flexible work schedules for employees during treatment and assessing the company's policies on this issue.

Encourage employees to take a depression screening. Whether for heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or depression - health screenings provide a quick and easy way to spot the first signs of serious illness and can reach people who might not otherwise seek professional medical advice. Clinical depression is a common medical illness affecting more than 19 million American adults each year. Like screenings for other illnesses, depression screenings should be a routine part of healthcare.

Life can be enjoyable again! With recognition and treatment, clinical depression can be overcome. Talk with your doctor or a qualified mental health professional if you think you may have symptoms of clinical depression. To determine whether you are experiencing symptoms, take a free and confidential depression-screening test at www.deprssionscreening.org.

Content of this article was provided by the National Mental Health Association

1. National Institute of Mental Health, D/ART Campaign, "Depression: What Every Woman Should Know," (1995). Pub No. 95-3871.



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