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Depression and Stress Are Killing Productivity


In a hypercompetitive global economy, organizations must be “on” 24/7. Yet this scramble for perpetual performance is taking a harsh toll on employees. They relentlessly push to get ahead and stay ahead—working longer days, emailing after hours, taking fewer vacations—often with little acknowledgment for their efforts. The result is a workforce that’s not just disengaged (Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report revealed that 70 percent of U.S. employees fall into this category), but also stressed and depressed.

And here’s the irony, the constant hustle aimed at increasing productivity and profitability actually decreases both. And since there’s a stigma around mental health issues, people aren’t seeking help. In fact, despite depression and stress disorders being the biggest source of lost productivity, my research shows that 86 percent of those afflicted would rather suffer in silence. That’s very bad news for employers, who may have a big portion of their workforce struggling along at reduced capacity.

I know the ravages of depression firsthand. After spending most of my life as a senior executive with organizations like Johnson & Johnson and A.T. Kearney, I suffered a mental breakdown, culminating in a suicide attempt. It was then that I began to wonder how widespread and impactful a problem workplace depression really is.

It turns out the problem is quite costly indeed. A study recently published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that depressed workers experienced more health-related productivity losses than those without depression—costing employers $44 billion.

A big part of the problem is a phenomenon called presenteeism—meaning that people are physically at work but not engaged and certainly not fully functioning. In fact, the JAMA study found that presenteeism accounts for greater losses in productivity among depressed workers than does absenteeism.

The loss in productivity caused by depression is extremely difficult to track because it manifests via poor performance. But companies that don’t address the elephant in the boardroom will suffer—even if they don’t know they’re suffering at all.

Here are just a few of my recommendations for leaders seeking to help depressed employees:

Be proactive about helping employees treat depression. I recommend providing employees with workplace resources—including a mental health policy, wellness program, and intranet materials—to help them take action to deal with their illness. Whether available via an organization’s intranet or downloadable in the form of a smartphone app, these resources must be both practical and evidence-based. To accommodate different learning styles, multimedia delivery would be optimal. Companies could also assemble a panel or list of suitable mental health professionals whom employees can feel comfortable going to when they need assistance.

A big regret for depressed individuals is that they didn’t get an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan earlier. There is a stigma around depression that discourages people from getting treatment. But when companies emphasize the importance of treating these issues, they help destigmatize them, which will lead to more people’s getting the help they need more quickly.

Know how to recognize the signs of depression. Of course, a key step in providing employees with the care and support they need is knowing what signs indicate they may be suffering from depression. If a normally reliable employee starts calling in sick more than usual, missing deadlines or meetings, looks tired or overwhelmed, or has a decrease in overall performance, they could be depressed.

Employers, managers, and co-workers should also keep an eye out for changes in temperament. For example, maybe an employee was well-known for greeting you and other co-workers each morning or making friendly conversation during work breaks, but now goes straight to his desk or spends his breaks alone or surfing the Internet. These could each be signs that depression has taken hold and certainly indicate it might be time to check in with them and see how they’re doing.

Teach managers and team members how to ask “Are you OK?” Fifty-one percent of employees believe that the most effective way to address harmful stress is “speaking to someone at work.” This creates a compelling case to increase the will and skill of managers and team members to ask “Are you OK?” and encourage the stressed employee to take action. I recommend a four-step process to building trust and helping someone you are concerned about. First, break the ice. The best ice breaker? Simply ask “Are you OK?” Next, listen without judgment. Then, encourage action. And finally, follow up.

Many managers are paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing and opt for saying nothing instead. I guarantee that if you approach the conversation with a genuine effort to “put yourself in their shoes,” your intent will be felt and appreciated. Compassion or emotional support plays an essential role in recovering from depression. Employees say that when a supervisor or co-worker shows they care about them as a person, it is the biggest predictor of recovery and return to productivity.

Make sure their work fits their strengths. Engaged employees, doing work they’re good at, are happy employees. Companies can help prevent workplace depression by making sure employees are satisfied with their work. And where depression already exists helping the employee get back to doing fulfilling work will help them recover.

Through my own work in recruitment, outplacement and career planning, I know that a large percentage of employees aren’t in the right role, and this will often have a detrimental impact on their mental health. Employees achieve the greatest fulfillment from work when they’re using their strengths. Tom Rath’s (Gallup, Inc.) book Strengths Based Leadership finds that employees who use their top five strengths on a daily basis are 600 percent more likely to be engaged at work and 300 percent more likely to be satisfied with their lives.

Martin Seligman in his book Flourish provides numerous case studies highlighting how recovery from mental illness can be enhanced by coaching people using their strengths. And of course, ensuring your employees are doing work that is truly engaging and that they actually like to do is great for companies, too. Not only will employees be more productive, but their work will be of a greater quality.  

Provide ways for employees to get exercise. One of the common symptoms of depression is fatigue and an overactive mind and underactive body. According to the Mayo Clinic, a 30-minute brisk walk improves your mood two, four, eight and 12 hours later compared to those who don’t exercise.

A great way for companies to play a role here is to offer physical and mental wellness programs. Employees with a positive mood are 31 percent more productive, sell 37 percent more, and are 300 percent more creative. The productivity benefit that could flow from a program that builds employee physical and mental well-being is almost self-evident, especially in light of exercise’s being judged so important for recovery. 

If a virus or other illness was running rampant through your workforce, you wouldn’t sit back and do nothing while employees called in sick or sat at their desks unable to do their jobs. More than likely, you’d find ways to help your employees get well as soon as possible. That’s why it doesn’t make sense for employers to ignore the hold that depression has on so many of their employees. It’s time to get this elephant out of our boardrooms. Organizations that recognize the importance of helping their employees get the mental health care they need will reap huge benefits.

Graeme Cowan is a speaker and author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder. 

(Image via Frenzel/

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