Depression at work Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2009

Depression can affect anyone, and your employees are not immune. In fact, depression in the workplace costs employers an estimated $44 billion each year in lost production time.

Dr. James Schuster, MD, MBA, chief medical officer at Community Care Behavioral Health Organization, UPMC Insurance Services Division, says there are several actions employers can take to reduce the impact and help your employees with their condition.

“For more than 80 percent of people with depression, treatment for depression is clearly effective,” Schuster says. “Most people are able to recover and return to satisfactory, functioning lives.”

Smart Business spoke to Schuster about how employers should handle depression in the workplace.

Why is depression in the workplace an issue employers should be concerned about?

Employers may be surprised to learn that 16.5 percent of employees in the U.S. are affected by major depression, and that most receive inadequate treatment or none at all. Obviously, depression in the workplace can affect missed days and productivity as well as health care costs within an organization.

A survey by the RAND Corporation found that patients with depressive symptoms spend more days in bed than those with diabetes, arthritis, back problems, lung problems or gastrointestinal disorders. No job category or professional level is immune from depression, and even an employee who has been outstanding in the past can be affected.

How costly is depression in the workplace to employers?

It is estimated that depression in the U.S. costs employers $44 billion in lost production time. Workers with depression lose an average of 5.6 productive hours per week, as compared to 1.5 for workers without depression. Depression increases absenteeism risk for employees. But it is far from a hopeless situation.

Treatment for depression has been shown to be clearly effective for more than 80 percent of people suffering from depression. Most people are able to recover and return to satisfactory, functioning lives. Treatments, such as medication or short-term talk therapy or some combination of both, provide relief.

Is there anything an employer can do to reduce the impact that depression has on job productivity?

An employer can support depression screening and treatment by both health care providers and its insurer. In many cases, depression screening can be part of any health plan that is offered to employees.

In addition, a health plan that includes a wide variety of professionals is preferred because depression often exists in conjunction with another health condition. Episodes in which an employee is being treated for another condition provide a good opportunity for depression to be recognized so that depression treatment can begin. Education of employees about how to recognize depression and about treatment options can also encourage treatment and help employees recover more quickly.

What is the proper role of a manager or employer when an employee has depression?

On-the-job behaviors — such as decreased or inconsistent productivity, absenteeism, decreased interest in work and increased errors — can indicate depression, but they could also be indicative of any number of other problems. As a leader, you must resist the temptation to diagnose the condition. Instead, simply recognize that something appears to be wrong, and refer the employee to an employee assistance program (EAP) professional or occupational health nurse, if those are available, or to a health care provider.

Why is depression hidden from or not recognized by many employers?

Many times, depressed employees do not seek treatment for their condition because they fear that it will have a negative impact on their job status or their reputation with their colleagues. Of course, it is also true that employees simply may not be aware that they have depression, or they may assume that their insurance would not cover such a condition.

Surveys have shown that employers are more than likely to take proper action if they are aware of the symptoms for depression. A survey by the National Mental Health Association showed that 64 percent of employers would refer such employees to an EAP health professional.

What should an employer do to most effectively deal with depression in the workplace?

Employers should review corporate medical programs and employee health benefits. They should make sure that any EAP staff members are trained to recognize depressive disorders, make appropriate referrals, and provide other assistance consistent with policies and practices. It is also important to make sure employees are aware of where and how to seek help if they are depressed and that their health plan’s network has specialists for this condition.

What kinds of programs can deal effectively with depression in the workplace?

Initiatives that include screening for depression and a depression prevention program that provides information about depression and encourages treatment can be very helpful. Look for health plan programs that integrate wellness, physical health disease management and behavioral health services. Health plans that use models that integrate data from several sources, such as disability and health care costs, are also helpful.

DR. JAMES SCHUSTER, MD, MBA, is chief medical officer at Community Care Behavioral Health Organization, UPMC Insurance Services Division. Reach him at (412) 454-2153 or