The University Record, November 8, 1999

Research points to value of occupational health programs for depression

By Amy Reyes
News and Information Services

Depression in the workplace has long been recognized as a costly illness for business. But until depression became the focus of research, occupational health programs primarily focused on common physical illnesses.

Reg A. Williams, associate professor of nursing, identifies the costs and signs of depression in an article published in this month’s issue of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses Journal (AAOHN Journal). The article is co-authored by Patricia Strasser, adjunct assistant professor of nursing and president of Partners in BusinessHealth Solutions in Toledo, Ohio.

“Occupational health nurses are seeing more people who suffer from depression in the workplace, they don’t feel prepared to manage it because up until recently, depression in the workplace hasn’t been a focus of work-place health,” Williams said.

In recent years, employees have increasingly sought and been granted workers’ compensation for psychological injuries, such as depression, thereby adding weight to the argument that depression is a legitimate work-related health problem. But because of the negative stigma attached to depression, in many cases the illness goes untreated, and that can be costly, Williams said.

“The indirect and direct cost of depression in the workplace is immense. Consider the loss of employee productivity. Productivity and absenteeism losses associated with depression cost U.S. companies $24 billion annually, or about $3,000 a year per depressed employee,” he said. The total cost of depression at work is estimated to be as high as $44 billion.

Williams points out that health-care workers in the workplace focus much attention on the risk factors for heart disease, cancer, obesity and other illnesses, but place little emphasis on the risk factors for depression—stress or negative change in personal life, negative changes in the work environment, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, working excessively long hours without a break, added responsibility, and family history of depression, among other factors.

Work-place depression and depression in general are on the rise, Williams said. In the United States, estimates show that 17.6 million people will have an episode of depression each year and one out of five people will suffer from a mood disorder, such as depression, in their lifetime.

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the fourth leading cause of disease burden in the world. This is the first time a psychiatric illness has been considered a disease burden. By 2020, it is expected to be the second leading cause of disease burden.

Williams cites a study in which depression is the most expensive medical cost of all behavioral health conditions, accounting for 52 percent of all claims of one major company. It was the most common diagnosis of those who sought help from the company’s employee assistance program. It resulted in more days of disability and 12-month recidivism than employees who suffered from common chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes and back pain.

“People’s awareness of how profound depression in the workplace can be is starting to rise. The impact on employee performance is incredible, yet this is a highly treatable illness,” Williams said.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • Remaining off work longer than the company allows for disability

  • Loss of concentration

  • Reduced productivity

  • Loss of interest in work

  • Withdrawal from colleagues

  • Irritability

  • Excessive lateness

  • High absenteeism

  • Unresponsive to phone calls