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Workplace depression, a national problem

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If you are depressed at work, you are not alone—it is a growing problem in the US; it causes employees to think less clearly, which impacts the bottom line of a business by affecting the productivity of the worker. In addition, depressed workers are more likely to lose their job, which will exacerbate their depression. To gain insight into the problem, I interviewed Debra Lerner, PhD, who specializes in in research regarding the work and productivity impact due to mental health issues at Tufts University, and Susan Marisco, who conducts human resources research. Both women noted that “presenteeism”, the practice of showing up at work but not really being productive, is a growing problem, nationwide.

The problem of workers being on the job, but not fully functioning is a major drain on productivity and employers’ bottom line, costing them $44 billion dollars a year, according to research. Experts say often depression is at the heart of presenteeism and other problems such as absenteeism, sleep disturbance, and low energy that contribute to lost productivity in the workplace. No matter their field of work, if employees have depression, it can affect their ability to think clearly and quickly; thus, creating major problems on the job. This is particularly true today, as employees are constantly asked to do more with fewer resources and less staff, requiring an even higher level of productivity and efficiency. In addition, in recent years, information technology (e.g., computers, Internet, and e-mail) have shifted the US workplace to a knowledge-driven economy, which places even more emphasis on thinking skills, which researchers estimate are now demanded by 85% of all new jobs.

Dr. Lerner notes that approximately 86% of employees treated for depression report improved work performance; however, only one-third of individuals with diagnosable mental health conditions seek care. Unfortunately, many workers may not feel comfortable seeking treatment for depression because of the stigma and fear of repercussions (such as losing their job or not receiving a promotion). In addition, many individuals suffering from depression are in denial and do not admit to themselves or others that they are depressed.

With the current state of the US economy, more Americans are unemployed or facing job loss due to staff reduction. Ms. Marisco notes that depressed individuals are three times more likely to lose their job than a person who is not depressed. Although an individual will not admit that he or she is depressed, the problem may be obvious to coworkers and employers who notice the signs of depression, which include a gloomy attitude, tearfulness, low motivation, and difficulty in concentrating.

Dr. Lerner notes that help is available for both depressed workers and their employers. She and her colleagues at Tufts have developed the Work Limitations Questionnaire (WLQ). Hundreds of thousands of employees complete the WLQ annually as part of routine health assessment and corporate health strategy. Ms. Marisco is Director, Corporate Benefits & HR Systems at Online Computer Library Center. Both women were involved in implementation of the Right Direction Web Site, which offers invaluable information for employees and employers. Dr. Lerner is also involved in the Right Direction initiative directly as an evaluator, using the WLQ.