Workin’ Blues

Depression in the workplace is a serious, costly illness. Here’s how employers and employees alike can cope.

You’ve been collaborating on business projects with your colleague in the adjoining cubicle for more than 15 years. Lately, however, she’s been acting out-of-character, and the quality of her work has gone south. She seems tired and listless, and she’s been seen hanging her head throughout the workday. Most noticeably, your colleague has lost a considerable amount of weight, and she is easily irritated by events that, in the past, she’d have taken in stride.

This brief vignette illustrates but a few of the signs and symptoms of an all-too-common phenomenon, depression in the workplace. In fact, clinical depression has emerged as one of America’s most costly illnesses. Left untreated, depression can be as costly as heart disease and AIDS, accounting in the U.S. alone for an estimated $43 billion a year in absenteeism, lost productivity and direct-treatment expenditures.

For employees:

If you feel depressed, seek assistance. Your company may offer helpful resources, such as an employee assistance program (EAP) or an occupational heath nurse. If not, then consider obtaining outside help through your personal or family physician. Don’t let fears of job loss, inadequate insurance or confidentiality concerns stop you. Depression is a serious illness, and treatment can help. Also, if you are able to keep working, do so. Staying home and doing nothing will only exacerbate your feelings of helplessness, and that can worsen your depression.

For employers:

First, it’s important to understand that a depressive disorder can hurt your employees’ productivity, judgment, teamwork and overall job performance.

But as an employer, you cannot and should not diagnose depression. That’s the job of a psychiatrist or other mental-health professional. However, you should be aware of depression’s warning signs and address them accordingly.

One sign that an employee is suffering from depression is a change in work ethic. Watch for behavioral changes, such as the sudden appearance of tardiness, absenteeism, decreased productivity, diminished work quality, isolation from co-workers, angry outbursts and frequent comments about feeling fatigued.

Here are eight other steps employers should take:

  • Educate yourself about depression. Understand that depression is a bonafide illness, not a personality flaw.
  • Take a nonjudgmental position towards depression, just as you would toward any other illness.
  • Be on the lookout for risk-taking behaviors. They can be early-warning signs of depression.
  • If you observe worrisome changes in an employee, talk to them. Offer information regarding assistance, such as counseling and the company’s EAP.
  • Be specific about what you expect from the employee.
  • Consider offering extra flexibility to the employee’s schedule while they’re undergoing treatment.
  • Promise the employee that you will protect their personal privacy and keep their mental-health records confidential – and then follow through on your promise.
  • Take seriously any and all life-threatening comments made by employees – for example, suicide threats or talk of attacking others. If an employee makes such a comment, bring in a mental-health professional immediately for assistance.

Every company, whether large or small, can benefit from developing a mental-health policy. An effective policy will not only take preventive measures towards depression, but also encourage depression’s immediate treatment. Such policies can improve both individual and company performance. They can also lower the overall cost of depression and other medical illnesses.

————————————————————

Joe Wegmann is a licensed clinical social worker and a clinical pharmacist with over 30 years of experience in counseling and medication treatment of depression and anxiety. Joe’s new book, Psychopharmacology: Straight Talk on Mental Health Medications is available at www.pesi.com. To learn more about Joe’s programs or to contribute a question for Joe to answer in a future article, visit his website at www.thepharmatherapist.com, or e-mail him at joe@thepharmatherapist.com.