With more than six million working days lost each year due to people suffering from depression, managers at all levels need to be able to deal with this situation in the workplace. Lauren Thomsen-Moore reports.
In any one year, about three in every 10 employees will have a mental health problem. Depression is a common illness that affects about 800,000 Australians each year. It afflicts one in four women, and one in six men at some point in their adult life.
Just as depression affects one in five in the wider community, similarly, depression will affect one in five people within any workplace setting.
“Depression reduces a person’s ability to function in all aspects of their work, social and home life”, says Dr Nicole Highet, Senior Program Manager of the national depression initiative, beyondblue.
Dr Highet says those affected can be less productive at work, with depression also responsible for high rates of sickleave, accidents and staff turnover.
“These people are capable and productive. And just as you might not function at your best when you’ve got a terrible flu, [people with depression] can recover fully and are too valuable a resource not to invest in,” Dr Highet says.
The way an employer or manager handles staff with depression is also a serious issue.
beyondblue has done qualitative research on the issue of discrimination in the workplace, and in the insurance industry, against people who suffer from depression.
Dr Highet says results show it’s very hard for people to come forward and describe their experience with a depressive illness, as there is still the tendency to see depression as a personal weakness rather than an illness.
With increasing cases of unfair dismissal or discrimination, managers need to be responsible and supportive when it comes to dealing with depression sufferers, “just as a boss would offer support if an employee was suffering from any other illness, e.g. cancer”, Dr Highet says.
She says that research undertaken by beyondblue highlights a number of cases of clear discrimination and stigma in the workplace. This included the story of a woman who had built up the courage to tell her manager that she was suffering from depression but was then given filing duties. “This demonstrates that people think depression sufferers are incapable of doing the normal duties of their job.”
Another case that Dr Highet says further demonstrates the lack of understanding about the illness, and how managers should be more supportive to employees, is the case of another woman who approached her manager to inform him or her that she had depression.
“The manager then got out the yearly diary and said ‘okay, pick out the days you’ll need to have off because of your depression’.
“When the employee said she was unable to do this – due to being unable to predict a year ahead when she might require time off due to her illness – the woman lost her job.”
Dr Highet says both employers and work colleagues should learn to look out for the main signs of depression, which may include: tiredness or irritability; poor appetite or weight loss; problems sleeping; withdrawing from social activity; lack of concentration; relying on alcohol or sedatives; and feeling overwhelmed, sad and unhappy.
“It’s very important to have an organisational commitment to educating staff and managers about the issue – what it is, what the signs and symptoms are, and what you can do. People have often done first aid courses and they know how to respond to a physical emergency, but there is little awareness about how to respond to mental health problems,” she says.
In smaller organisations, she says, it’s helpful to talk about depression in a general context, “even to just plant the seed at a group talk or information session”.
“Employers could also talk to the person about it, suggest an appointment with a health care professional and follow it up,” advises Dr Highet.
The “presenteeism” factor
Dr Michael Hilton of the Work Outcomes Research Cost-Benefit Project, Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research, at the University of Queensland says “presenteeism” is the major cost of depression on workplaces: “as depressed people come to work but only perform at 40 per cent of capacity”.
“The average duration of major depression is about six months and can commonly be two years or more if left untreated.
“It has been shown in a recent study that the treatment of depression gets people back to work quickly,” he says.
According to Dr Hilton, depression is one of the most expensive WorkCover claims.
“Early diagnosis and treatment may catch the depression before it results in extended periods off work,” he says.
Dr Hilton says depression can cost each employer at least $250, and up to as much as $480 annually in lost productivity for each and every employee, not just those with depression.
The national and international workforce health initiative (WORC) project is assessing the return on investment for employee mental health screening and treatment from the employers’ perspective.
“Participation in the WORC Project provides employers with increased employee health and wellbeing, maximising employee productivity, and decreasing absenteeism, employee turnover, disability claims and job related accidents”, Dr Hilton says.
The research is being conducted by the Policy and Economics Group at University of Queensland and is currently in the recruitment phase.
Dr Hilton says many organisations from various sectors have signed up to participate in the WORC program. The questionnaires will begin rolling out in May, and will continue for nine months, ending in January 2005. The last data will be collected in July 2006.
Dr Hilton says the research will provide managers of all levels with information on:
- the illness itself, reassuring corporate Australia that depression is not caused by work but by a combination of factors;
- the effect that depression has on the workplace both in monetary and productivity terms;
- the importance of addressing the issue rather than pushing it under the table; and
- the methods of addressing the issue.
Dr Hilton says the researchers expect that some employers and/or managers do not want to know about depression because of stigma and perceived problem areas.
“However, if there is a proven substantial financial benefit for finding and treating depression (as our economic models suggest), this will motivate managers to be more proactive in the arena of mental health in the workforce,” Dr Hilton says.
“It also has beneficial effects for employees who are not depressed, it can be hard to work in an environment where your co-worker is constantly off work sick or is non-communicative.
“Helping those with depression will actually have knock-on effects for other employees and improve their productivity,” Hilton says.
According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK), many employees are afraid of talking about their depression because they fear it might affect their job security.
The RCP says managers may need to allow their employee to take some time off work, as well as making allowances when they return.
Companies of all sizes are also being encouraged to consider developing a mental health policy to provide a workplace which prevents depression and encourages its prompt and effective treatment.
The national depression initiative, beyondblue, has developed, piloted and evaluated a depression in the workplace program. Among other things, it has proven effective in increasing employee knowledge and confidence to engage in appropriate and helpful behaviours and strategies in the workplace.
The program has been implemented in various national settings including the Australian Taxation Office and Workcover South Australia.
Last year, more than 2000 participants took part in a 12-hour Mental Health First Aid program offered by the Australian National University’s Centre for Mental Health Research.
The workplace-based program showed participants how to identify depression and act on proven strategies.
Depression isn’t fussy – it can strike anyone at any time
In April 1994, Wayne Chamley was a senior executive in a government agency with 3000 permanent employees and 1000 casual staff. He reported to the department head – and on some matters – to one of two government ministers, and was putting the finishing touches on the department’s budget – $300 million expenditure across 17 cost centres.
One year later, in April 1995, Chamley agreed with a psychiatrist that he was suffering from major depression and needed to enter a clinic.
He had no sense of smell and could only register the colours yellow and deep red. Everything else was grey. His concentration span was seconds long, and he could not read or write.
He suffered extreme sleep disturbance, and mood changes ranging from mild to severe depression.
In the following years, Chamley tried several antidepressants, and finally found one that was tolerable and worked well for him.
He said, gradually over weeks, months and years, his functions came back.
Source: The Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria
Depression can affect anyone regardless of whether they are rich, poor, famous, or successful. Many well-known people have experienced this sometimes crippling condition, for example Australian actor Garry McDonald. Best known for his character Norman Gunston and as Arthur Beare in the ABC series, Mother and Son, McDonald suffered a widely reported emotional breakdown about 10 years ago during the aborted comeback of his Norman Gunston Show. He is now a patron of the Anxiety Disorders Foundation in New South Wales, and a representative of Australian depression/anxiety sufferers on the Board of beyondblue. McDonald said his major depression resulted from an anxiety disorder, but he learnt to manage his condition once it was diagnosed.
What to look for
Someone suffering from depression can start to behave out of character, both at home and at work. Other workers or employers may notice that someone is:
- Working slowly
- Making mistakes more often
- Unable to concentrate
- Late for work or meetings
- Not turning up
- Getting into disputes and arguments with colleagues
- Unable to delegate tasks
- Working, or trying to work, much too hard
Source: Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK)
Case study: depression fear
Former corporate high-flyer Ken Nielsen says “depression is a bastard of a disease, but it is very treatable”.
Talking about his battle with major depression in a newspaper article, Nielsen, who once held the position of Regional President Asia & Australia for US-owned food company Mars Inc, says such things as the stigma still attached to any mental illness and fear of acknowledging the problem, all work to stop people seeking help.
“When friends make comments such as: ‘I know how you feel. I sometimes feel down, too’, you feel like shouting: ‘No, you don’t. You have no bloody idea’.
“It is like someone saying to a friend with double pneumonia: ‘I know how you feel. I had a bit of a sniffle the other day’.” Nielsen says depression is on a completely different scale.