Depression on the Job

From secretaries to CEOs, workers face an epidemic of depression. At any given time, about 9.5 percent of adults suffer from a depressive illness, a fact that explains a lot of empty desks and unpunched time cards. Every year, depression causes 200 million lost days of work, and it is the leading cause of disability in the United States for 15- to 44-year-olds. In a way, everyone pays the bill. In fact, workplace depression drains more than $50 billion from the economy each year, mostly because of absenteeism and lower productivity, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Depression used to be a hidden disease, but more and more companies have a vested interest in bringing it out in the open. By watching for signs of depression and offering support, employers can improve morale and productivity, not to mention their bottom line. Unfortunately, mental health is still a taboo subject in many workplaces. Until more employers and employees understand the disease, too many people will continue to work under a cloud.

Working toward the blues

The source of depression often lies far beyond the office. Conflicts at home, the loss of a loved one, or a fight with a friend can sink the mood of the happiest employee. But for many people, emotional distress is truly an occupational hazard. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), one out of four Americans say their job is the most stressful part of their lives. It isn’t always just run-of-the-mill, teeth-gnashing, pencil-breaking stress, either. Many studies link job strain to a wide range of illnesses, including heart disease, back pain, ulcers, and, yes, depression.

Often, the stress isn’t hard to explain. Many workers put in long hours for little pay. And if they’re lucky enough to have a good job, they may worry about losing it. Speeded-up production lines and accelerated marketing schedules are now the norm at most manufacturing operations, computerized monitoring is widespread, and many people who work in sales face increasing scrutiny in terms of their customer service.

In many cases, the real issue is control, says Ernie Randolfi, PhD, a Montana-based business consultant and expert on stress management. People who enjoy some autonomy at their job have strong protection against stress and depression, while those who feel powerless can be quickly wiped out, he says.

Spotting the signs

Reading the mood of a co-worker can be tricky, even if he or she is just a cubicle away. But depressed workers often wave several red flags, including a major change in behavior, says Margaret Novotny, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist with a practice in Silicon Valley. A talkative person may suddenly become silent and moody, and someone who’s usually found at his work station may suddenly be away in the hallway or outside. Depression, however, doesn’t always mean the person is absent or not working up to par. “In some cases, an employee may begin overworking to avoid returning to a difficult home situation,” Novotny says.

According to Mental Health America (MHA), other signs of on-the-job depression include trouble meeting deadlines, lack of cooperation, absenteeism, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, and feeling immobilized on the job. It can also mean headaches, backaches, and colds.

Four steps to a happier workplace

According to Mental Health America, employers and managers could reduce the toll of depression by taking the following steps:

1. Learn about depression and identify the people and organizations that can help. Many government and private organizations offer information on depression and how to foster depression awareness training within your company. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Business Group on Health, for example, have joined together to develop “In Good Company: Developing EAP Strategies for Clinical Depression,” a kit designed to train employee assistance professionals and human resource managers on how to deal with workplace depression. Online purchase can be made by visiting the National Business Group on Health’s Web site ( or by calling them at 202-628-9320. The MHA Help Desk is a nationally recognized resource for information on mental illness and treatments and referrals for local treatment services.

2. If you’re a supervisor or co-worker and you think a worker may be depressed, refer her to an employee assistance program (EAP) counselor or other mental health care provider. Bringing up the subject of mental health is never easy. Be sympathetic and assure the worker that your conversation is confidential. The NIMH suggests taking the following approach:

  • “I’m concerned that recently you’ve been late to work often and aren’t meeting your performance objectives. I’d like to see you get back on track. I don’t know whether this is the case for you, but if personal issues are affecting your work, you can speak confidentially to one of our employee assistance counselors. The service was set up to help employees. Our conversation today and appointments with the counselor will be kept confidential. Whether or not you contact this service, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.”

3. Assure employees that state and federal law and Employee Assistance Professional policy guarantee employee confidentiality.

“The cornerstone in an EAP program is confidentiality,” says Stuart Hales of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association. “Without it employees would not use it and we would go back to the days when employees would have to fend for themselves.”

4. Consider accommodating the employee’s need for an adjusted work schedule, including a flexible work schedule during treatment. Find out the company’s policies on this issue.

Clinical depression is covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, which prohibits companies from discriminating against the disabled and requires employers to make a “reasonable accommodation” for disabled employees. This could include giving the employee a few months to adjust to medication and creating a flexible work schedule to avoid late hours or stressful deadlines.

Getting help

If you’re a worker who feels stressed out or depressed, don’t hesitate to get help. A good therapist can help you understand the roots of your depression and give you the tools to recover. With proper treatment, more than 80 percent of people who are clinically depressed get better.

You may be eligible to take a leave under the Family Medical Leave Act to work out your problem, whether it’s related to your own depression or to the health care of sick family members. Time off could also help you take care of family members without the stress of working at the same time.

Many employees feel much better when they learn how to tune out the frustrating parts of their job and focus on its rewards, Randolfi says. Changing a person’s way of thinking is the most difficult way to manage stress, but it’s potentially the most successful.

Whatever you do, don’t try to tough it out alone. And if one approach doesn’t help, try another. And another. After all, staying healthy is the most important job of all.

Further Resources

Mental Health America 2000 N. Beauregard Street, 6th Floor Alexandria, VA 22311 703-684-7722

Mental Health Information Center 800-969-6642

Washington Business Group on Health 50 F St. N.W. suite 600 Washington, D.C. 20001 202-628-9320

The National Institute of Mental Health. Depression Research at the National Institute of Mental Health.


Workplace Health Promotion: Depression. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When an Employee is Depressed. National Institute of Mental Health.

Sauter S et al. Stress at Work. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

University of Michigan Health System. Press Release: Despite company efforts, employees with depression view illness as roadblock to career success.

National Institute for Mental Health. The Numbers Count,

Mental Health America. Fact Sheet: Mind Your Stress on the Job.

Mental Health America: Fact Sheet: Depression in the Workplace.

© HealthDay

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