Depression in the Workplace
It is normal for feelings of sadness or grief to develop in response to difficult life event, from the death of a loved one to a major disaster. Those experiencing such events might describe themselves as being “depressed.”
But sadness and depression are not the same. While feelings of sadness will lessen with time, depression is an illness that can continue for months, or even years without treatment.
Employees with depression cost employers an estimated $44 billion per year in lost productive time. But the good news is that treatment works: 70-80% of people with depression improve significantly with appropriate treatment, and almost all individuals receive some symptom relief and benefit from medical care.
What Is Depression?
Depression (major depressive disorder) is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act. Fortunately, it is also treatable. Depression causes feelings of sadness and/or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed. It can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems and can decrease a person’s ability to function at work and at home.
Depression symptoms can vary from mild to severe and can include:
Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
Changes in appetite — weight loss or gain unrelated to dieting
Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
Loss of energy or increased fatigue
Increase in restless activity (e.g., hand-wringing or pacing) or slowed movements and speech
Feeling worthless or guilty
Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
Thoughts of death or suicide
Symptoms must last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression.
Also, medical conditions (e.g., thyroid, a brain tumor or vitamin deficiency) can mimic symptoms of depression so it is important to rule out general medical causes.
Depression affects an estimated one in 15 adults (6.7%) in any given year. And one in six people (16.6%) will experience depression at some time in their life. Depression can strike at any time, but on average, first appears during the late teens to mid-20s. Women are more likely than men to experience depression. Some studies show that one-third of women will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime.
Depression can affect anyone—even a person who appears to live in relatively ideal circumstances.
Several factors can play a role in depression:
Biochemistry: Differences in certain chemicals in the brain may contribute to symptoms of depression.
Genetics: Depression can run in families. For example, if one identical twin has depression, the other has a 70 percent chance of having the illness sometime in life.
Personality: People with low self-esteem, who are easily overwhelmed by stress, or who are generally pessimistic appear to be more likely to experience depression.
Environmental factors: Continuous exposure to violence, neglect, abuse or poverty may make some people more vulnerable to depression.
Tips for Employers
Educate employees and managers about mental health disorders, including depression: Encourage employees to seek care when they need it by educating the workforce that mental illnesses are real and can be effectively treated. Teach supervisors how to (and how not to) intervene appropriately by focusing on job performance.
Screen for depression: Include depression screening in health risk appraisals and EAP programs. Work with health plans to incentivize clinicians to screen and ensure that appropriate systems are in place to follow up for diagnosis and treatment. Use the validated 9-item Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9), available in multiple languages and formats.
Promote the use of employee assistance and health programs: Early intervention is key. Remind employees of the availability of resources for staying healthy and productive. Ensure that employees know how to access care confidentially and quickly by providing information on how to do so in multiple places and throughout the year. Heavily push these messages during times of stress, at the holidays, etc.
Integrate mental health educational messages in health communication strategies: Include content about depression in company newsletters, on the intranet and in other regular employee communication platforms.
Quantifying the Cost of Depression: an important study on the financial impact of depression.
Survey of U.S. Workers Reveals Impact on Productivity from Depression
Study Finds that Gender Pay Gap Contributes to Increased Rates of Depression and Anxiety Among Women
1 Marlowe, J. F. (2002). Depression’s surprising toll on employee productivity. Employee Benefits Journal, March, 16-20.