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How Depression and Stress in the Workplace 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, says Graeme Cowan: The constant hustle aimed at increasing productivity and profitability actually decreases both.
“The mental and emotional state of today’s workforce is abysmal,” says Cowan, a survivor of depression and author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2014. “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 is Australian, knows the ravages of depression firsthand. After spending most of his life as a senior executive with organizations like Johnson & Johnson and A.T. Kearney, 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.
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,” 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. 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.
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.
“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.
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, Cowan says helping the employee get back to doing fulfilling work will help them recover.
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.
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.
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.”

>> Graeme Cowan is the author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder. He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance.

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