Employers help fight depression

Employees who get help at work have better recovery rates: Study

Tackling the highly sensitive and critical issue of employee depression — responsible for 30 per cent to 40 per cent of disability claims, according to the Canadian Health Network in Ottawa — is enough to make any HR professional frown. Now, there’s reason to smile.

A study in the September issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) shows employer programs set up to help identify and promote effective treatment of depression in employees have significantly improved clinical and workplace outcomes.

Not only were symptoms improved and recovery rates from depression higher among participants receiving workplace interventions, but they worked an average of 2.6 more hours per week (two weeks a year) than participants in the usual care group, according to the article, titled “Telephone Screening, Outreach and Care Management for Depressed Workers.”

“One of the most immediate, useful things that an employer can do is educate employees about depression, so they become familiar with the signs and symptoms, and also rid them of the stigma and mythology that surrounds it,” said Bill Wilkerson, chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Global Business Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.

According to the Mood Disorders Society of Canada in Guelph, Ont., mental illness in the workplace costs the Canadian economy $14.4 billion annually. Two-thirds of this is paid by the business sector in the form of lost productivity, disability, group insurance premiums and drug benefits.

“The average duration of depression is in excess of 30 days and, based on what I’ve seen, early screening and detection and adequate prevention can help eliminate any time off,” said Wilkerson. “What we need to do is prevent the disabling effects of this illness by getting at people sooner, and employers can be proactive to ensure employees are getting appropriate care.”

Some research has shown that for every $1 spent on health promotion in the workplace, the employer saves about $5. But Wilkerson wants to see more solid numbers, and has organized a task force of chief financial officers to create a model for companies to assess the return on investment of mental health education.

“We really need to get into the metrics so companies can get past the notion they are spending money on health promotion without getting a return on it,” he said.

Mary Ann Baynton, director of Toronto-based Mental Health Works, said two out of three Canadians experiencing depression will not seek help, citing 2001 Statistics Canada data.

Because there is a stigma attached to mental health problems, employers should be careful to communicate that their role is one of support, not of medical involvement, said Baynton. Mental Health Works is a national program created by the Canadian Mental Health Association that provides training and consultation around mental health issues in the workplace.

The stigma attached to mental health, and the fear of hurting potential career opportunities, would cause 79 per cent of employees to hide the fact they were suffering from depression, according to an Ipsos-Reid survey of 1,000 Canadian and 1,000 American employees conducted in February.

Almost one-half said they believed if an employee is absent as a result of depression she would “get into trouble and maybe even be fired.” Most of the survey respondents (84 per cent) think that helping employees with mental illness should be a priority for HR.

In addition to a workplace education campaign, Wilkerson recommended setting up a confidential screening process, not unlike on-site blood donor clinics.

“We encourage corporations to have senior executives and department heads, all the leaders in the organization, line up first,” said Wilkerson. “This shows employees that it is in fact a routine precaution because of the prevalence and wide distribution of the illness.”

Baynton said that companies need to train front-line supervisors to identify the symptoms of depression to catch it early and get employees directed to effective treatment while allowing them to stay at work.

“It’s not as complicated as you might think. We are not asking employees to diagnose other employees,” said Baynton. “Instead they are trained to look at behaviour that can be easily seen in the workplace. For example someone is withdrawn or argumentative or more hostile than before.”

She said the most challenging aspect is training managers to speak with employees they’ve identified as having potential depression.

“They don’t know what to say. They feel they might be crossing the line or violating human rights,” said Baynton. “There are all sorts of reasons managers usually say nothing.”

However, with the right training they could confidently discuss the matter with an employee and encourage him to seek help from his family physician or the employer’s employee assistance program (EAP), she said.

Lesley Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer.

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