Better return-to-work strategies needed for depression: Conference Board

Workers often have trouble with concentration, memory, decision-making
By Sabrina Nanji
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/22/2013

Depression is a silent, unseen hurdle that is one of the most difficult mental health issues for workers to overcome.

That notion was echoed in a study from the Conference Board of Canada that found two-thirds of employees returning to work after being treated for depression still experience lingering challenges.

Of the 1,277 workers surveyed, two-thirds had trouble concentrating, remembering, making decisions and performing tasks — despite being medically cleared to go back to work. The study, Depression in the Workplace: Insights from Employees and Supervisors, also involved more than 700 front-line supervisors, who also reported difficulty when implementing return-to-work strategies.

The findings suggest a need for companies to re-evaluate return-to-work policies for those who suffer from depression. About 16 per cent of women and 11 per cent of men will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime, according to Health Canada.

“Mental health issues have definitely escalated in the Canadian workplace, at least in the last decade,” said Louise Chenier, senior research associate at the conference board and the study’s lead author.

Increasingly stressful lifestyles are one major factor for the spike in depression, she said. For employers, that could mean a rise in absenteeism and a drop in productivity, not to mention an unhealthy workplace overall — which could be costly for employers.

“The reality is, the whole category of mental health, it’s a growing area of concern for business because apart from the fact that no one wants to see people going through difficulties, it’s also very expensive from an employer perspective,” said Keri Alletson, senior consultant at HR consulting firm Towers Watson in Toronto.

“The thing that is very common with things like depression and anxiety is that (employees) don’t ask for help. They struggle and they try (to) keep up and they try (to) do everything. And then what happens is, because we spend so much time in the workplace, something in the workplace can be a trigger, (can) just be the straw in the camel’s back, if the person hasn’t spoken up and asked for help.”

Perhaps the first step to implementing a successful return-to-work strategy is to first take a look in the mirror, said Alletson. That includes self-evaluating to ensure individual workers have the tools they need to perform at peak productivity levels. For instance, an outdated computer could impact a staffer’s ability to do his job effectively.

Another clue might come from aggregate reports and the company’s benefits plan. Looking for trends across aggregate reports, employee assistance programs (EAPs) and benefits plans can provide clues regarding the overall culture of the workplace, said Alletson.

“See what percentage of their total population is taking drugs for anxiety, depression, sleep aids, things like that. That’s a clue to action. Analyze the data you have and understand the degree to which it’s affecting your business.”

Managers are also in a tricky position when it comes to recognizing whether their staff are suffering from depression. While it is not their job to diagnose or point fingers, they should be able to recognize when one of their worker’s attitude changes — such as looking out for dips in productivity or whether a worker is engaged or becomes easily distracted or irritable.

Employers are also starting to create overarching mental health strategies. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) has developed a series of best practices to help managers reintegrate staff. Employers should treat employees returning to work after experiencing depression just as they would an employee coming back after a physical injury, said Emma Nicolson, a health and safety specialist at CCOHS in Hamilton. Often that requires taking stock of their functional abilities.

“Do they need a quiet work environment? Do they need to have a pen and paper ready so they can write things down? You’re not looking at the symptoms, but how do we keep the worker functional?” she said.

“If memory is an issue, do we need to make sure they’re writing things down? Another thing is knowing there is a safe place that they can go to when they’re feeling overwhelmed. That should be identified, such as a first aid room or empty conference room where they can go to refresh on their coping mechanisms.”

As well, an effective return-to-work strategy should include regular followup, as individuals can often experience speedy recoveries or relapses.

Another challenge is communication, said Nicolson. Employers often tread lightly when recognizing that there could be a problem, and then bringing it up with that employee — which can sometimes have an adverse affect.

“Stigma is still a big thing, we still need to break that wall down,” she said. “If someone breaks their leg, often we rally around them, we do whatever we can to help them — we drive them places, we get groceries for them — but when someone is suffering from depression or another mental illness, we shy away and we’re so scared of saying the wrong thing. And that has a further negative impact on that individual. So if we can treat it like any other health issue, we can remove that stigma.”

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