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Elephant in the Boardroom: How Depression and Stress in the Workplace Are Killing Productivity

As companies strive to compete in a global economy, they become high-stress incubators for mental health problems. This wreaks havoc on productivity. Graeme Cowan explains why we must overcome the stigma associated with depression and tackle the “elephant” head-on.

EHS Today Jul 21, 2014 by Sandy Smith

Employee depression can be an expensive elephant in the board room, impacting productivity and profitability.

In a hypercompetitive global economy, the scramble for perpetual performance is taking a harsh toll on employees. They relentlessly are pushd 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 work force 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, says Graeme Cowan, who has served as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and A.T. Kearney: The constant hustle aimed at increasing productivity and profitability actually decreases both.

“The mental and emotional state of today’s work force is abysmal,” says Cowan, a survivor of depression and author of the report, “The Elephant in the Boardroom: Getting Mentally Fit for Work. “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.”

Cowan, who also is the author of “Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder," knows the ravages of depression firsthand. After spending most of his life as a senior executive, he suffered a mental breakdown, culminating in a suicide attempt. It was then that he began to wonder how widespread and impactful a problem workplace depression really is to business.

As it turns out, the problem is quite costly. 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 present 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,” notes Cowan. “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 Cowan’s recommendations for leaders seeking to help depressed employees:

Be proactive about helping employees treat depression. Cowan recommends 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.

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

Know how to recognize the signs of depression. 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 coworkers should also keep an eye out for changes in temperament,” notes Cowan. “For example, maybe an employee was well known for greeting you and other coworkers 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 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 okay?” 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 okay?’ and encourage the stressed employee to take action,” says Cowan. “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 okay?’ 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, said Cowan. “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 coworker 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.

“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,” notes Cowan. “Employees achieve the greatest fulfillment from work when they’re using their strengths.”

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 2, 4, 8 and 12 hours later compared to those who don’t exercise.

According to Cowan, 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 evident.

“If a virus or other illness was running rampant through your work force, you wouldn’t sit back and do nothing while employees called in sick or sat at their desks unable to do their jobs,” says Cowan. “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. Companies that recognize the importance of helping their employees get the mental health care they need will reap huge benefits.”