Depression in the Workplace – October 18, 2006

Depression in the workplace

Future’s Ramblings – Issue 24 – October 18, 2006

Do you ever have those days where you feel like the black dog is getting the better of you? The black dog is the term Winston Churchill used to describe depression. Churchill, like many other famous people including Dawn Frasier, Buz Aldrin, Claude Monet, Mozart, John Cleese and even Prince Charles all suffered from depression. In fact 72% of famous writers, 42% of the artist, 36% of intellectuals, 35% of composers, 33% scientists and 41% of politicians suffer from depression.

In the past, if I had woken feeling a bit blue and decided the best way to remedy that was stick the pillow over my head and call in sick I would have felt like a complete loser.  Now that I know Buz Aldren does the same thing I feel a sense of empowerment that comes from having a special alignment with the FIRST MAN ON THE MOON CONSARNIT. Yep me and Buz Aldrin who said

“There were days I could not get out of bed.  Some mornings I responded to the doctor’s questions, other mornings, I ignored his questions and carried on my litany of self-doubt and self-hate. At times I felt hopelessly snarled in the tangle of my mind.

Okay so I am not in the hospital and you would be correct in pointing out that going to the moon is not tantamount to going to New Zealand – even though sometimes it can feel that way. Never the less,  there is something quite sobering about discovering the flight crew on the Qantas Sydney to Auckland route, the customs guys and cashiers at the duty free liquor counter all know your name, but your kids greet you with who are you? when you walk in the door after a business trip – Ouch.

Everyone experiences days when they feel a bit down, and most of us have pulled a sickie at some time in our working career, except for my pal Neil Shoebridge at the Financial Review who has NEVER called in sick in 18 years. The bigger issues is that the greater portion of the population  go to work when they are not emotionally prepared  – you could say a few bricks shy of a load, they have one oar in the water, or are one enchilada short of a combination meal –  they go anyway. It is these walking wounded, particularly those with serious depression or anxiety disorders, that are wreaking havoc with workplace productivity and that is what we need to pay closer attention to.

The leadership and workplace gurus don’t talk much about depression, it has been coined the last taboo of workplace issues. Having confronted discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, sexual orientation and religion, we are only just now beginning to scratch the surface on the implications that mental ill health has on business. I am not referring to days where there is a minor setback that ruins your morning, such as feeling like skipping work because your butt looks too big in these pants, or the baby puked down your back and the other suit is at the cleaners. I am talking about genuine physical illness which impacts ones ability to do their work the same way the old work -related illnesses did: coalminer’s lung, match girl’s jaw and chimney – sweep scrotum. Real stuff.

It is estimated that a quarter of workers will suffer some depression, anxiety or related substance abuse problem each year. One in five of us will experience this at some point in our adult lives (If the empty beer bottles after Friday night drinks are any indication I would say that substance abuse is affecting all of us here simultaneously – forget the one in five) Depression is the most common reason for people being off work in the public sector and it has the greatest negative impact on productivity for non manufacturing companies. In the UK Mental ill health is costing up to Pounds 9 billion a year in pay alone, in the US untreated mental illness cost the USA $105 billion in lost productivity each year, and in Australia it cost 3.3 billion dollars a year in lost productivity.

If those figures were not convincing, here are a few more to sober you up complements of Beyond Blue the National Depression Initiative:

  • Un healthy workers had 18 days sick leave compared with 2 day for healthy ones.
  • Unhealthy employees worked an average of 49 effective hours a month compared to 143 hours a month for healthy employees.
  • There are 6 million days lost each year due to absenteeism, and another 12 million days lost each year due to lack of productivity

At Geyer most of us work in teams so it will be no surprise to hear that the cost of a health related absence is often more than just lost wages paid to the worker who is out sick, there are broader implications to productivity. When it comes to measuring the cost of ailments to companies, diabetes, arthritis and circulatory disorders were responsible for higher direct medical costs; but interestingly depression / anxiety had the highest cost, particularly when “Impaired presenteeism” is taken into account. This is the term used for the impact on others, of those who come to work while ill. I love that term impaired presenteeism, you could take the idea much further: impaired jerkism, impaired moronism.

In Australia we have started to pay more attention to depression and mental health after the resignation of WA premier Geoff Gallops. More recently Queensland’s attorney general Linda Lavarch resigned from the ministry and Labor’s front bench for similar reasons. As has been mentioned, it is tough going for the politicians 41% are depressed. In fact Comcare the federal government’s mental health program has seen clams increase from 5.9% in 2004 to 22%. I would imagine these figures would be higher in the US given the dismal performance of the current administration there (if they were real men would go stick there head in the oven given their track record). By the way mid term elections in the US are in the next two weeks – I live in hope!!!!!!!!!!!

One of the biggest problems depression presents to an organization is the cost. In Australia mental stress claims have risen from 6813 in 2001 to 8093 in 2004 and that trend is likely to accelerate. For those with serious depression the average claim is $80,000. Naturally, with money to be earned the lawyers are not far behind, in the US you can sue your employer under the Americans with Disabilities Act, issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission if they do not account for your depression. In 2004 federal guidelines were issued in the US describing how employers could make ‘accommodation’ for employees with serious mood disorders, such as changing their work hours; and if they didn’t their employees could sue .

In 2004 the EEOC took in $469,000 in financial settlements for employees who complained they were discriminated against because of their depression, this has ballooned to more that 3 million in 2005. Wipe that smug look off of your face, its not just happening in the US! In 2003 the WA Supreme Court awarded an employee $856,742 after they were diagnosed with depressive illness. The employer was found negligent for not heeding the warnings that the employees work load was too great.

As an example of how this could work, my niece who is a university student in PhoenixArizona works part time at a department store where she is a manger of her area. As the manger she has no recourse over an employee who frequently decides not to come in to work or is late, because the other girl has gone on record as being ‘depressed’. The other girl shows up when she pleases and leaves when she pleases and there is nothing that her manager can do about it. Just imagine trying to run one of our projects with a team like that.

The last thing I want to do here is make light of depression, but it would be safe to say it is tricky situation when the symptoms pretty much describe a typical work week for many of us. Unfortunately for some of you in Melbourne, and you know who you are, traits like irritability, anal pickneyness or chronic lateness are considered behaviours and not mental impairments that would require ‘accommodation’ by your employer. The real symptoms are:

  • Persistent sadness or anxious mood
  • Loss of interest in or pleasure from ordinary activities (I know I am in trouble when I lose the will to be cynical)
  • Decreased energy, fatigue or feelings of being slowed down
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating disturbances
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or attempts at suicide – interesting they don’t mention thoughts of boss homicide
  • Irritability
  • Excessive crying
  • Chronic aches and pains
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions.

If Australia follows in the footsteps of the US, as it often does, employers will need to make accommodation in the workplace for those with mental health issues. If the lost productivity doesn’t drive such initiatives then potential legal ramifications will. Commonwealth Bank is already taking depression in the workplace seriously. Commonwealth Bank Chief Executive Ralph Norris says “Commonwealth Bank is committed to the health and well being of our staff and is proud to offer our employees access to information and advice about depression and how to identify it or seek treatment for it,” he goes on to say “We are pleased to provide the resources and information for our staff and to be recognised as leading edge within the finance sector for this type of initiative.” “The program will ultimately lead to positive outcomes across the Bank – first and foremost for our people – in addition to increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and reduced direct and indirect costs.”

I am going to leave you with an assignment.  I would like all of you to go away and challenge yourself to come up with ways, even seemingly insignificant ones, that the physical environment could be used to combat workplace depression. Send them back to me and the futures team will distribute prizes for the best ones. You see, I am feeling a bit depressed, I heard through the grapevine that there is an expectation that Future’s identify new workplace trends. Well I’ll be gosh darn, that’s why I write these Futures Ramblings! (I would use other words but you know how picky that mail marshal is)

So to be perfectly clear – one of the trends you should think about when designing a work environment is the possibility that employees may be depressed.  If the environment you create can in anyway elevate that, for instance through happy face upholstery fabrics, that would put Geyer on the leading edge.


“Depression, a disease that we must defeat”

By Richard Layard

The Observer

une 18, 2006

“Aetna to Pay For Program To Manage Depression”

New York times

November 2, 2005

“Stressed Out”

By Amita Tandukar



“Depression Knows No Boundaries”

By Shane Nichols

The Australian Financial Review

February 23, 2006

“Third of men drink to drown out job stress: Survey links depression to long hours and insecurity”

By John Carvel

The Guardian London, England

June 8, 2006

“Sick Job Syndrome – The Office Psychologist”

By John Nash

The Times – London England

March 30, 2006

“Beyond Blue: Opening our Eyes to the Cost of Depression in the Workplace”

Web site

Multiplier Effect: The Financial Consequences of Worker Absences

Knowledge at Wharton

December 14, 2005

“Workplaces Quit Quietly Ignoring Mental Illness”

By Stephanie Armour

USA Today

August 22, 2006


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