The old belief that only the socioeconomically disadvantaged get depression has been shown to be vastly mistaken, and it has been found that depression is an illness that tends to strike people during the prime of their working careers. It is a biochemical disorder marked by intense feelings of sadness and despair. Depression affects both physical and mental well-being. It is a dreadful, and sometimes even fatal disease that ruins marriages, careers and lives. Without treatment, symptoms can endure for months or even years.
Depression is on the increase and studies show that the incidence of depression has been rising sharply amongst people born since the 1940's. People today are about 6 times more likely to report depressive symptoms than someone born at the turn of the century. Reasons for this increase are not clear, although some have attributed it to a greater awareness amongst young people about the illness and a greater willingness to admit to depression. Others have theorized that it is due to diminished family stability and the fact that successive generations have higher expectations from life and are therefore more likely to be disappointed.
Worldwide, depression is one of the most costly illnesses, along with heart disease, cancer and AIDS. It ranks amongst the top three workplace problems, followed only by family crisis and stress. At any one time it is estimated that one in every twenty employees is suffering from depression, with one in four people being estimated to suffer from depression at some stage in their lives. According to the American National Mental Health Association, approximately 200 million workdays are lost each year due to employee depression.
Depression is a common illness that affects everyone in the workplace, either personally or indirectly through exposure to depressed colleagues. In the past depression has been associated with older people and women, but it can affect younger people and men, who are in fact more at risk of committing suicide. Men find it more difficult to talk about their feelings and tend to deny their depression for longer, thereby complicating later treatment. Depression can affect any employee, irrespective of their age, sex, position or ability.
Employers are often reluctant to employ people suffering from depression, fearing they may be less productive than their non-depressive counterparts. There are also worries about the depressed person bringing negativity into the workplace. To combat these prejudices, employers should be educated about depressive illnesses. The good news for employers is that depression can be successfully treated. Constantly improving treatments allow quicker recoveries, but it is imperative for employers to realize that the sooner the illness is recognized the quicker the recovery. This holds important implications for company policies. The first step is for employers to be able to recognize the warning signs of depression. These include:
· A change in the employees usual behaviour
· Decreased productivity
· Inability to cope with the workload
· Difficulty concentrating, increased forgetfulness, accidents and mistakes
· Poor timekeeping, excessive absenteeism
· Irritability, sadness, tearfulness - lasting more than two weeks
· Morale problems
· Lack of co-operation
· Excessive fatigue
· Unexplained aches and pains
· Alcohol and/or drug abuse
There are a few simple steps to follow that could help to reduce employee depression and thereby increase productivity and decrease costs to the company:
· Accept that depression is an illness
· Identify possible triggers of depression in the workplace:
Reduce possible triggers by educating employees about depression
· Create an environment where difficulties can be discussed:
Employees should be encouraged to talk through any stressful experiences in a comfortable environment
· Ensure that working relationships are good:
People should act civilly toward one another - no-one should be bullied, harassed, or discriminated against
· Be available and approachable:
Listen to the employee, be sympathetic and ensure confidentiality
· Provide adequate working conditions:
There should be sufficient light, space, heat and ventilation
· Promote healthy lifestyles:
Excessive stress, drinking and smoking should be discouraged
· Encourage people to seek help and advice:
Ensure information about depression is available in the workplace, including details about self-help groups and other support organizations
· Flexible work hours:
During treatment, try to accommodate the individual's needs with a flexible work schedule
Despite the growing trend among businesses to provide onsite employee assistance programmes that offer mental health, alcohol, and drug abuse counselling, there is still a stigma attached to depression. Employers should recognize that people who have experienced depression may be an asset to their organisation. Having hopefully learnt from their experiences, they have a better understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and can recognize the signs of depression in others, as well as being able to understand and support other members of the organization with similar problems.
Small businesses or those that do not have any in-house assistance facilities for employees can help in other ways. By encouraging employees to seek help from support organizations, like the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, they may set them on the road to recovery. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group can be contacted, Mondays to Fridays, from 8am to 7pm, and on Saturdays from 8am to 5pm on (011) 783-1474/6.