Dealing with workplace depression
Workplace depression costs employers billions of dollars each year. Some 670,000 working Canadians, or five per cent of the workforce, are affected by depression: but due to stigma fewer than one third will ever seek treatment.
People between the ages of 25 and 54, who make up 70 per cent of the work force, are most commonly affected by depression. Left unchecked, depression at work can manifest itself as alcoholism, absenteeism, accidents, morale problems, poor work quality, and even physical illness, including heart attack. University studies show that depression costs Canada and the United States some $90 billion per year, primarily in lost productivity. Depression ranks among the top three workplace problems for employee assistance. While employers cannot diagnose depression, they can be aware of the signs and encourage their employees to seek assistance.
Depression may begin gradually or suddenly. No amount of cheering up or keeping a "stiff upper lip" can make the depression go away; that is because depression is an illness, not a weakness. Do the following statements sound familiar?
"For weeks, I was always on the verge of tears. I thought I had fallen into a black hole that I couldn't get out of. Was I going to feel this way forever?"
"Even though I was always tired, I kept waking up early in the morning and I completely lost my appetite. Everyone irritated me: people at work, my spouse and kids."
"My family and friends noticed that I just wasn't myself anymore. I didn't enjoy the things I used to .... It became so difficult to concentrate at work that I felt worthless, like I couldn't do anything well."
No two people experience depression in the same manner, but there are some common signs of depression. In the workplace a person with depression will start to exhibit any number of the following signs: irritability, anger, sadness, difficulty in making decisions, decreased productivity, inability to concentrate, decline in dependability, withdrawal from, or extreme dependency on others, slowness of speech, chronic fatigue, unusual increase in errors in work, being prone to accidents, frequent tardiness, increased "sick" days, or lack of enthusiasm for work.
What causes workplace depression? Depression can be caused by a number of elements: stress, negative changes in personal life such as death of a loved one, negative changes in the work environment, or difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Working excessively long hours without a break, added responsibility, a family history of depression, some medications, or a combination of events or situations may contribute to the onset of depression.
People with depression must live with their feelings 24 hours a day. However, it's in the workplace that they will try hardest to mask their illness. Fear of being reprimanded, dismissed or stigmatized for feeling "down", and feelings of shame will prevent someone from seeking help. Unexplained "sick days" can make family and co-workers resentful, and may, in some workplaces, even result in dismissal.
Once depression is recognized, help can make a difference for 80 per cent of people who are affected, allowing them to get back to their regular activities. If depression is not treated, it can last for months or even years. A person can become so withdrawn they simply can't get out of bed. Feeling isolated from family, friends and co-workers and unable to seek help, 15 per cent of people with severe depression commit suicide.
While employers cannot diagnose depression, they can be aware of the signs and encourage their employees to seek assistance.
- Educate yourself about depression. When a person's illness is under control, they may be your best employee.
- People who ignore the stresses in their lives are most prone to psychosomatic illness. Listen for complaints of unexplained aches and pains.
- Have a talk with your employee about the changes you have observed.
- Do not try to diagnose depression yourself. Offer your employee information about what they can do to get assistance, recommend they see a physician, or seek counselling through an Employee Assistance Program, or contacting the Canadian Mental Health Association.
- Be empathetic and non-judgmental, just as you would for any other illness.
- A depressed person may need some special allowances, such as a flexible schedule while they get well. Be clear about what allowances company policy allows you to make for their illness.
- Ensure your employee that what they say to you and their counsellor will be kept confidential.
- Severe depression may be life-threatening to the employee. Take any suicide threats seriously and contact an EAP counselor or other professional for more information about what you should do.