Image for depression at work article Clinical depression is one of America’s most costly illnesses. Indeed, untreated depression costs the US economy more than $43 billion annually in lost productivity, absenteeism, and treatment costs, making it equally as costly as AIDS or heart disease. Depression may be present in 11% of US population at some point during life.

What Is Depression?

Depression is a mental illness characterized by feelings of profound sadness and lack of interest in enjoyable activities. It may cause a wide range of symptoms, both physical and emotional. Depression is not the same as a blue mood, nor is it a personal weakness; it is a major, but treatable illness. Depression can last for weeks, months, or years. People with depression may recover without treatment. However, the longer depression lasts and the more times it recurs, the more likely it is that treatment will prove necessary.

What Causes Depression?

The precise cause of depression is not known. Causes may be mental, physical, or environmental, including:

  • Stressful life events (usually in combination with one or more of the following causes)
  • Chronic stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Imbalances in brain chemicals and hormones
  • Lack of control over circumstances (helplessness and hopelessness)
  • Negative thought patterns and beliefs
  • Chronic pain
  • Heart disease and heart surgery

What Are The Facts About Depression in the Workplace?

  • Depression ranks among the top three workplace problems seen by employee assistance professionals (following only family crisis and stress).
  • Depression is responsible for 3% of total short-term disability days; in 76% of these cases, the employee is female.
  • Depressive disorders account for more than half of all medical plan dollars paid for mental health problems.
  • Almost 2% of those suffering from depression will commit suicide over a lifetime. A study by Dr. John Bostwick of the Mayo Clinic reviewed 100 suicide-related studies done in the last 30 years. Bostwick established that the suicide rate in patients suffering from depression is 2%-9%. The risk is lower for women and higher for those hospitalized for depression.
  • Oftentimes a depressed employee will not seek treatment because they fear the affect it will have on their job and are concerned about confidentiality.
  • Many employees with depression are either unaware they have depression or fear their insurance is inadequate to cover the costs of treatment.

What Are the Symptoms of Depression in the Workplace?

Symptoms of depression are highly variable from person to person. Some people have only a few symptoms, while others have many. Symptoms may also vary over time. In the workplace, symptoms of depression often may be recognized by:

  • Decreased productivity
  • Morale problems
  • Lack of cooperation
  • Safety risks, accidents
  • Absenteeism
  • Frequent statements about being tired all the time
  • Problems with concentration
  • Complaints of unexplained aches and pains
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

What Are the Treatment Options?

Treatment of depression usually includes medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. The medications help relieve symptoms, while psychotherapy helps employees learn more effective ways of dealing with problems or identifying and resolving the conflicts contributing to their depression.

What's the Next Step?

More than 80% of people with clinical depression can be treated successfully. The key is to recovery is that their symptoms are recognized early and that they get the treatment they need. Many companies are helping their employees with depression by providing training on depressive illnesses for supervisors, access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), and access to occupational health personnel. Such efforts are contributing to significant reductions in lost time and job-related accidents as well as marked increases in productivity.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Learn about depression and the sources of help that are available.
  • Recognize when an employee shows signs of a problem affecting performance that may be depression-related and refer employees appropriately.
  • Discuss changes in work performance with the employee. You may suggest that the employee seek professional help if there are personal concerns. Assure the employee that all conversations will be kept in the strictest confidence.
  • If an employee voluntarily talks with you about his or her health problems, including feeling depressed or down all the time, keep these points in mind:
    • Do not try to diagnose the problem yourself.
    • Recommend that any employee experiencing symptoms of depression seek professional help from and employee assistance program (EAP) counselor or other health or mental health professional.
    • Recognize that a depressed employee may need a flexible work schedule during treatment. Find out about your company’s policy by contacting your human resources specialist.
    • Remember that severe depression may be life-threatening to the employee. If an employee makes comments that sound as if he or she may be considering suicide, take the threats very seriously. Call an EAP counselor or other specialist immediately and seek advice on how to handle the situation.
    • While depressed persons are at much greater risk of harming themselves than others, take any threats against others very seriously and seek professional advice quickly. This is particularly true if a threat involves a family member since spouses and children are among the most common homicide victims of depressed individuals.

The Good News

Successful treatment of depression enables people with the disease to return to satisfactory, functioning lives, and nearly everyone who undergoes treatment gets some degree of relief. With early recognition, intervention, and support, most employees can overcome their depression and pick up their lives and careers where they left off.