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Depression's Growing Toll on the Workplace
The 2008 collapse of the U.S. economy devastated countless lives, and many Americans are losing hope for the future. Millions of people have lost their jobs, have no health insurance, and are struggling their bills and care for their families. There were 2.9 million properties foreclosure filings in 2010 — a record high.
So it’s no surprise that the ongoing recession is taking a toll on the country’s mental health. Last year, more than 8% of U.S. adults reported an episode of clinical depression, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, up nearly a percentage point from the year before. Even more alarming, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline received 412,768 calls in pre-recession 2007; in 2008, their phones rang 540,041 times.
Is your job a trigger for depression?
Office workers are far from immune to mental health issues. Even though you’re still employed, office stress levels may be at boiling point. You might be struggling to support an unemployed spouse, or dealing with an unbearable workload in the wake of workplace layoffs. Co-workers and managers who are dealing with their own problems might be demanding and hostile.
If you’re susceptible to depression, which is caused by a chemical imbalance in your brain, a stressful work environment could serve as a trigger for mental health problems. In a 2000 study of over 3,300 office workers from Finland, employees who felt that staff morale was low were 61% more likely to have a depressive episode.
Due to the nature of your job, your risk of depression is higher than average. In fact, 8.1% of all administrative and support staff faced a major depressive issue within the last year, as compared to 7% of all full-time workers. As an office administrator, “your time is not your own,” says Clare Miller, director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. “Admins play so many roles in terms of getting things done and being the face of the company. That can lead to burnout.”
Depression’s toll on the workplace
Depression doesn’t just hurt the individual — it hurts the workplace, too. At any given time, one in every 20 employees is suffering from depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health Data Center, depression among employees leads to $43.7 billion in business losses every year due to absenteeism, decreased productivity, and treatment costs.
Crystal Brown Tatum, a public relations professional from Shreveport, Louisiana, suffered from clinical depression while working as an administrator for a software company. “Prior to seeking help, my work performance was affected in so many ways, including being late to work, being combative in email, overeating and forgetting important tasks,” she says. Her co-workers didn’t recognize her condition and treated her poorly, which made her depression even worse.
How to help a depressed co-worker
If one of your co-workers is constantly taking sick days, coming in late, or often cries for no apparent reason, there’s a good chance she’s suffering from depression. Encouraging her to seek treatment will help both your co-worker and your workplace as a whole — but be gentle.
“Because of depression’s stigma, approaching someone should be done carefully,” says Miller. Instead of directly asking your co-worker if she is depressed, “ask open-ended questions, and let the person reply in a way that’s comfortable for her.”
For instance, you could say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been absent a lot lately. Is there anything you’d like to talk about? I’m worried about you.”
Brown believes that support from co-workers could have helped her cope with her own depression, and encourages employees to get involved when they notice a problem. “Co-workers can recognize the signs and seek a private opportunity to offer themselves for support, leave a funny greeting card on the person's desk, invite them to lunch, or offer to pitch in with work,” she says.
What to do if you have depression
But what if you’re the one suffering? If you think your job may be triggering a depressive episode — with characteristics including a feeling of worthlessness, a lack of energy, and a lack of enjoyment in activities you once found pleasurable — take the confidential self-screening test from Mental Health America at depression-screening.org. Assuming the symptoms are a fit, seek help from a qualified mental health professional.
If your company has an employee assistance program (EAP), call them for assistance in setting up an appointment. “Administrative professionals can have more difficulty getting time off work during the day than most staff,” says Miller, “but you can call the EAP 24 hours a day.”
Unfortunately, depression is often seen as a stigma in the workplace. If you’re able to seek treatment and take control of your condition on your own, there’s no need to disclose your depression to anyone at work. However, if you know that you may need certain accommodations in the workplace, such as flexible hours or time off for doctors’ visits, it could be wise to discuss the condition with a supervisor.
You may also want to disclose your depression if you have been reprimanded for poor performance in the past, and you want to show that you’re seeking help. “The time to disclose really depends on the purpose of disclosure,” says Miller.
If the condition is negatively impacting your work performance even after beginning treatment, consider taking a mental health break. If you’re willing to disclose your condition, you may be entitled to receive either short-term or long-term disability insurance while you’re away from the office. And if you still dread the thought of returning to work after your hiatus, take the time to explore your options and pursue alternate careers with lower stress levels. After all, your mental wellbeing is more important than your paycheck.