Few depressed employees approach HR: Survey

Results a ‘wake-up call’ for HR

HR is virtually out of the loop when it comes to the management of depression in the workplace, according to the chief executive officer of the Toronto-based Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health.

A recent survey of 4,122 employees and managers commissioned by the roundtable, in conjunction with the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, found of the 26 per cent of employees who are diagnosed with depression or feel like they have depression, only 36 per cent told someone at work.

About three-quarters (76 per cent) of them told a co-worker, 46 per cent told a supervisor and only 17 per cent told HR.

“A very small percentage of people say that they will go to the human resources department when they think they need help,” said Bill Wilkerson. “That they aren’t turning to HR is for me a wake-up call for the HR community.”

However, Trish Stenson said it’s not surprising employees don’t go to HR with this kind of problem. A director of clinical practice and professional standards at Ceridian LifeWorks, an employee assistance program based in Markham, Ont., she said employees are often closer to their manager than to someone in HR, especially in a larger organization.

“HR sometimes is a little bit removed from employees. They may not feel as connected, so it wouldn’t be a logical step for them to go to HR first,” she said.

While the majority of managers are supportive of employees with depression — with 70 per cent giving employees time off to recuperate — the survey found only 18 per cent of managers have received training to help them identify and deal with employees who exhibit signs of depression.

The manager’s role isn’t that of psychiatrist or diagnostician, said Wilkerson.

“What managers need is training and policies to be able to manage the performance, in a humane and decent way, of those employees who are obviously in some kind of distress,” he said.

And this is where organizations, and HR in particular, are failing managers and employees, said Wilkerson.

“If that guidance, leadership and support don’t naturally come from the HR department, where are they supposed to come from?” he said. “The HR community needs to take stock and have an open debate on what is their role in the promotion of employee mental health.”

Previous studies had found a population-wide prevalence of depression of six per cent to 10 per cent, said Wilkerson. But this study shows the prevalence of depression in the workplace is much higher, with 18 per cent of employees reporting they have been diagnosed and another eight per cent believing they suffer from depression.

“This study affirms what we have been saying consistently — that depression is concentrated in the labour force among men and women in their prime working years,” said Wilkerson. “This form of chronic illness is one that merits the attention of government and employers because of the heavy preponderance in the workplace, where our economic fate rests.”

Previous estimates pegged the cost of depression per employee at $2,000 a year, but managers in this survey said the average cost per employee due to lost productivity on the job is $7,100 and when employees have to take time off that cost increases to $10,000.

Stigma fading

One of the reasons the study may have found higher numbers of depression is employees are now more comfortable reporting depression, said Stenson.

“More people are actually identifying themselves that way than ever before because the stigma is being lifted, slowly but surely,” she said.

Of the 64 per cent of employees surveyed who didn’t tell anybody about their depression, 62 per cent said it was because it wasn’t anybody’s business, 11 per cent were afraid they would be treated differently and nine per cent were embarrassed.

About two-thirds of employees with depression believe it was brought on by a single event, such as a divorce or a death in the family, not by workplace stress. But it’s more likely that event was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Stenson.

“Anything can exacerbate depression. Depression is like a slow, seeping, creeping kind of thing. You don’t just wake up one day depressed,” she said. “Life stressors will build and people will respond to them accordingly.”

CEO guidelines

Tips to create an emotionally healthy workplace

The Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health surveyed chief executive officers on mental health and, from the results, developed the following 10 guidelines to help CEOs improve mental health in the workplace.

1. Build mental health into the vision of a healthy workplace.

2. Openly champion mental health in the workplace.

3. Create a critical threshold of knowledge about what’s happening in the organization by auditing and reviewing each long-term disability file.

4. Based on the audit, set hard and achievable management and financial targets to reduce and prevent disability among employees diagnosed with depression.

5. Train HR staff to serve as empowered advocates for mental health in the workplace and engage line managers to become accountable for returning people to work from disability leave.

6. Take an investment-portfolio approach to manage and measure the benefits of spending on mental health.

7. Engage the chief financial officer and top HR executive as co-leaders of mental health in the workplace

8. Put a value on research and inquiry. The workplace is an important venue for research, early detection and intervention.

9. See the workplace as a place of prevention. De-stigmatize depression and promote early diagnosis and treatment by providing or encouraging screenings for depression.

10. Walk the talk. If screening is good for employees, it’s good for the CEO too.

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