June 19, 2014 Business Resources

Depression in the Workplace

When we think of illnesses that affect the workplace, we usually consider communicable diseases such as colds and the flu, or physical conditions that may limit a worker’s ability to be productive. However, depressive illnesses, including major depression and bipolar disorders, can affect the workplace just as much as any other illness.

Depression is characterized by changes in thinking, mood, or behavior. It is a result of a combination of factors that can include genetics, physiology, psychology, gender, and the environment.

Why should an employer care about depression?

Depression is one of the most expensive health conditions for American employers. In this country, more than $44 billion per year are lost in productivity because of depression, and the reason is twofold: First, depressed workers lose about 2.3 days of work per month. Second, even when depressed workers are physically present at work, they often cannot accomplish tasks or perform at as high a level as workers who are not depressed.

One of the biggest issues around depression in the workplace is that people might believe that there is a stigma attached to seeking help for this kind of illness. Even after someone has sought help, sometimes a perceived stigma is what prevents the person from continuing treatment or prescribed medication that could alleviate the condition.

For an employer, the ultimate effects of having workers suffering from depression can include lost productivity, increased health care costs, increased staff turnover, and low staff morale.

Common work-related causes of depression

Job pressure: Sometimes, high or competing demands, coupled with having little control over the pace or type of work, can be a major stressor. High job strain is common among many professions, including police officers, firefighters, mail handlers, medical worker, machine operators, and those in customer service.

Work/life imbalance or pressure: When employees constantly feel “on-call” because they carry company phones or are expected to respond to phone calls or emails even when not at work, it can create an encroachment of work into leisure time. As well, when a worker is juggling the demands of a job and family, it can be overwhelming to manage both.

Discrimination and harassment: When a worker believes that there are hostile or threatening interactions in the workplace, especially when coming from a supervisory level, it increases the risk of depression.

Job security: Especially during tight economic times, workers can be worried about layoffs and job performance. If a worker feels as though he could be laid off and is worried about his family’s economic security, it can lead to depression.

What are the symptoms of work-related depression?

Research has shown that 80% of patients with depression will improve with treatment, especially when they have access to care early in the course of the illness. There are plenty of actions that an employer can take that can help an employee who is suffering from depression, but you have to be able to read the symptoms first.

If you observe employees exhibiting the following, it might be a sign of depression:

  • Increasing sick days: Common ailments like colds, flu, or stomach pain can be manifestations of stress.
  • Loss of motivation or enthusiasm.
  • Changes in social behavior (withdrawing from friends or colleagues; becoming more outspoken, or more passive, depending on personality).
  • Failure to complete tasks on time, or failure to keep track of responsibilities: Memory loss can be a symptom of depression.
  • Fatigue: Taking into consideration other factors in the employee’s life, increased lethargy or looking tired could be a symptom of depression.
  • Increasing absent days other than sick days: If the employee has become disinterested in work, or is exceptionally stressed or depressed, she or he might be calling in with additional reasons for not coming to work.

What the employer can do

Aside from things that employers should be doing anyway (like providing comfortable working conditions, jobs that offer opportunities to use and develop skills, supportive supervisors and clear and reasonable performance expectations), an employer can do specific things to help depressed employees.

An Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is one way to provide information and referrals. This can give an employee the tools that she or he needs in order to find resources outside the office that will lead to treatment.

By raising awareness of the symptoms of depression among managers and employees, it can go a long way in identifying employees who need help and getting them what they need. Emphasize to your staff that they can approach the HR director or other relevant manager and express concerns in a safe and confidential manner.

Make it easier for an employee to take time off for a depressive episode and return to work. Encourage communication between management and staff so that employees understand that the company has their best interests in mind, and they feel comfortable approaching a trusted supervisor with any concerns. By having flexible sick pay policies and a robust health plan that includes mental health resources, you can help your employees get the assistance they need and return to the workforce in a way that is positive for them and for your company.


Resources: University of Michigan Health System Depression Center, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, PsychCentral

Anne Fernandez
About the Author

Dr. Fernandez joined CDPHP in 2012 as a medical director in the behavioral health department. Previously, she worked as a psychiatrist at St. Peter’s Healthcare in Albany and St. Peter’s Addiction Recovery Center clinics throughout the Capital District. Dr. Fernandez received a medical degree from SUNY Stony Brook, an MBA in health systems administration from Union College, a master’s in science and technology studies from RPI, and a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College. She is board-certified in psychiatry and neurology.

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