The negative effect of depression on the workplace is “higher than any other chronic mental and physical disorder”, according to psychiatrist Frans Korb.
Depression “presenteeism” [people come to work when they are experiencing a depressive episode] had a five times greater counteractive effect than being absent from work, said Korb, a board member of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and of medical scheme Discovery Health’s medical advisory division.
Depression affects cognitive functioning such as decisionmaking, memory and problem-solving. “If an employee has depression at work, they are five times less productive than an employee absent due to depression,” said Korb.
Sadag found that a quarter of South African employees have been diagnosed with depression by a medical professional. The organisation surveyed more than 1 000 employees and found, on average, depressed workers took 18 days of sick leave annually because of their condition.
However, half of respondents took no time off and continued to work while experiencing symptoms of depression. Most of these people struggle to think optimally because they cannot concentrate. More than half of the respondents said they took “more time to complete simple jobs” during depressive episodes.
One of Sadag’s survey participants explained the effect depression had on his daily life: “Trying to handle all my work responsibilities is challenging for me; it takes me a lot longer to get things done. It’s like you can’t see the small steps, you don’t have the energy to take big steps, so you feel stuck. Trapped. At the end of the day very little work gets done. This kind of thinking makes it difficult to do any normal daily tasks, not just those related to work.”
The research found nearly a third of employees who took time off for depression did not tell their employers the real reason they were absent from work.
Sadag founder Zane Wilson said employees may fear disclosing their condition to employers because of the stigma attached to mental illnesses. “People may worry their boss thinks they are not working hard enough and using depression as an excuse,” she said. “They may worry that if they disclose they are at risk of losing their job and not finding another.”
Seventy-five percent of managers who took part in the study said they did not have formal support structures for dealing with an employee with depression and only half knew how many sick days people took off because of the illness.
Wilson said the results of this study “emphasise more education and training is needed for managers, who seem eager to help but don’t feel equipped or supported in doing so”.