How employers can help employees manage depression

Julie Sich, Health Promotions Coordinator, SummaCare, Inc.

Studies estimate that approximately 15 percent of Americans will suffer from depression at some time in their lives.  Given this number, it’s likely that some of your employees are suffering from depression.

As an employer, this prevalent condition could be a burden on your business as mood disorders cost companies an estimated $11.5 billion per year in lost productivity.

“Fortunately, depression is one of the most treatable conditions,” says Julie Sich, health promotions coordinator for SummaCare, Inc.  “There are things you can do as an employer to make sure employees are correctly diagnosed and are effectively managing any prescribed antidepressant medication. A referral to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), if available to employees, may be the first step to helping employees with their symptoms.”

Smart Business spoke with Sich about the signs of depression, the barriers to treatment and how to manage the condition.

What are the signs of depression, and when should someone seek help?

While everyone feels sad at times, someone with depression has feelings of sadness over a period of several weeks or more. Other symptoms of depression may include a decrease in energy levels, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and pessimism, loss of interest in activities once enjoyed, changes in sleeping patterns and changes in eating patterns.

Someone suffering from treatable depression may also become irritable, act differently than usual, have emotional outbursts or be preoccupied. These conditions can have an impact on performance in the workplace as the person may be unfocused while at work, arrive late for work or have frequent absences, resulting in a loss of productivity.

When these feelings or behaviors last for long periods of time or become overwhelming, they can keep someone from leading a satisfying life and can also interfere with relationships and family. By seeking help, someone suffering from depression may be able to see improvement in several weeks.

Why is it important to manage depression?

Depression is a progressive, chronic condition, and it’s one of the most costly conditions to treat. In addition, recent studies report that depression is the one disorder that causes the most amount of lost work time in America. As a result, it is predicted that depression will soon become the leading cause of disability in today’s work force.

If left untreated or undertreated, depression can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to work, resulting in a decrease in a company’s overall productivity. Some studies estimate that employees who suffer from depression work at about 70 percent of their optimal productivity, decreasing output and affecting their time management ability. And that can lead to stress for other employees who see an increased workload as they work harder to make up that productivity.

What are the barriers to managing depression and anti-depression medication, and how can they be overcome?

Those suffering from depression often avoid diagnosis and treatment because of the stigma that is sometimes associated with the illness. They are reluctant to seek treatment from a mental health professional or even talk about their symptoms with their primary care physician. As a result of that stigma, even if someone takes the step of seeking help and being diagnosed with depression, that person may fail to take the medication as prescribed.

An additional challenge comes with convincing patients to continue taking antidepressants. Anti-depression medication can sometimes have unpleasant, short-term, temporary side effects without the patient showing much improvement for the first several weeks. Another challenge is that those who are able to overcome all of the initial hurdles may stop taking their medication after a few months when they are feeling better and begin to think that they no longer need to continue.

If a person diagnosed with depression is hospitalized, additional barriers can result following hospitalization. These include failure of the provider to communicate scheduled follow-up visits, systems that don’t adequately help patients keep appointments, poor coordination of care between primary physicians and mental health professionals and a lack of transportation or childcare to be able to keep appointments.

Overall, the biggest barrier to treating depression is a patient failing to follow the instructions of the health care provider.

How can employers help employees combat these problems?

Employers can start by talking openly about depression and by guiding employees to the right resources for diagnosis and treatment through their health insurance plan. Employers can also work with their health insurer to provide member education through newsletters, encouraging those who may be suffering from it to seek treatment. Also, your health insurer should monitor follow-up contact and work with physicians to educate them on the issues and reinforce the need to continue taking medication if prescribed.

Your health insurer can also develop a medication management program to work with members who may find it difficult to take their medication consistently.  Some carriers can even develop a program to follow up with health care providers who are not following clinical practice guidelines. In addition, partnering with a behavioral health medication management program can help identify those who are not adhering to their prescriptions and intervene early. Such a program can increase the probability that employees receive effective care to manage their depression.
By working with your health insurer, you can help your employees lead a happier, more productive life, improving not only the quality of their lives but also the quality of their work and their impact on your bottom line.

JULIE SICH is the health promotions coordinator for SummaCare, Inc. Reach her at (330) 996-8779 or [email protected] SummaCare offers a full line of health plans and ancillary products. Through its extensive network of more than 7,000 providers and more than 50 hospitals, SummaCare offers coverage to more than 115,000 members throughout northern Ohio.