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The Director Discusses: Depression in the Workplace

Photo: John F. Greden, M.D.How Common is Depression in the Workplace?
As described in prior "Director Discusses" columns, clinical depression is common. One of every five individuals, whether working or not, develops clinical depression or bipolar illness during their lifetime. Those who get depressive or bipolar disorders may feel alone and reluctant to discuss, but they certainly are not. To confound the commonality, if depressions are untreated, an episodic, recurrent course occurs in most people; in other words, even when an episode passes, it tends to come back if left untreated. So during any given month in any given workplace with many employees, it is virtually guaranteed that clinical depression will be common and costly.

Why should employers care about costs and consequences of clinical depression and bipolar illnesses in the workplace?
Depression is near or at the top in producing financial burden in workplace settings. Most studies show that clinical depressions are the second-most costly disorders in the United States when considering total economic consequences, behind only cardiovascular diseases. When focusing on costs of lost workplace productivity and disabilities, depression and bipolar illness in workplace settings are again relative leaders, accounting for $50 - $75 billion in annual lost productivity in the United States. For every untreated depressed worker, there is an average of 27 work days lost per year. Employers interested in enhancing efficiency, improving productivity, and controlling costs require a healthy workforce. Treating depression and maintaining wellness is one of the more effective ways to contribute to these workplace goals. Corporate studies repeatedly confirm that there is long-term financial return that accompanies the priceless "people return" if depressed employees are successfully diagnosed and treated.

What can employers do about counteracting depression and bipolar illnesses?
Employers need to lead the way by creating a climate driven by five principles, exemplified in the following:

  •  In our company, we encourage our employees to use the confidential screening that is available to help them determine if they have depressive or bipolar disorders and to learn that they are treatable;
  • We pledge to help any depressed workers get evaluated and treated, because we know it is good for them and our company;
  • We will take steps to let everyone in our company know we value every worker and will do everything possible to not only get them better but keep them better;
  • We will not tolerate any displays of stigma that stand in the way of helping each of our employees and pledge that these clinical problems will be handled just as we handle diabetes or heart disease.
  • These steps will save costs, jobs, and lives so we all should get behind them.

What programs has the University of Michigan Depression Center developed to address increasing stresses and depression in the workplace associated with the country's financial recession?
Aided by a wonderful gift from the Ravitz Foundation, the Center has developed five initiatives:

  • a statewide coalition of major clinical organizations and advocacy groups to reach out to those who have unfortunately lost jobs, struggled with foreclosures, or other stresses;
  • a virtual consultation service to support primary care physicians with telephone consultations from Depression Center faculty; free brochures for doctors' offices, including messages about how to bring up the topic of depression and bipolar disorder with their doctors;
  • video clips to be found on our depression center web site and shared with others;
  • and training for community clinicians to enable earlier recognition and treatment of those with depression, anxiety, and bipolar illnesses (the earlier they are found, the more treatable they are).

The Center also has a terrific website that contains a dedicated segment focusing on depression in the workplace. We thank the team who produced it: Philip Margolis, M.D., Amy Bonhert, Ph.D., Brianna Mezuk, Ph.D, and Kara Zivin, Ph.D., with assistance from Torrey Armstrong, B.A. We invite suggestions about how to improve our Depression Center sites, help providers in our state, enhance our own clinical programs and continue to attack this problem in our state and throughout the United States.


John F. Greden, M.D.

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