Workplace and Depression: Employers fail to take stress into account

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Everyone seems to know someone who can walk into his or her workplace, disrupt it, create turmoil and calmly walk away while the blood pressure of others soars. Often, the perpetrator has no idea of the problems he or she has created, or the long-term damage that results from that.

Workers who suffer from depression can wreak similar havoc on the workplace. Consider “Carol the Closet Crier,” who is always at the restroom mirror dabbing her eyes and, consequently, not pulling her weight. Consider, too, “Paul the Pessimist,” whose dark moods and negativity drain all the energy out of meetings. Depression, studies show, costs American employers more than $51 billion a year in lost productivity and it accounts for one of the highest rates of absenteeism.

Stress denial

The inability of companies to understand workplace stress is documented in a study by the consulting firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide. The study of 13,000 workers in medium-size and large companies around the world shows that these companies are not recognizing stress adequately. It also reveals that workers identify stress as the primary reason they leave jobs, while companies don’t even list it among the top five reasons. “Worldwide, the frenetic pace of modern business is taking its toll on employees,” says Watson Wyatt’s Adam Sorenson. “There’s no question that employees are more likely to leave or speak badly of their workplace if they feel overburdened.”

The survey finds that employers believe the No. 1 reason that employees leave is because they aren’t happy with their base pay, followed by unhappiness over inadequate career development opportunities and poor promotion prospects. Relationships with supervisors and work-life balance round out the five leading reasons, according to employers. In the same survey, 52 percent of employers say they are having difficulty retaining top-performing employees, while 56 percent say they have trouble keeping workers with critical skills.

This is a classic case of denial, Watson Wyatt says. Employers are causing their own problems and they don’t even seem to know it. The firm suggests that stress-related issues are so severe that companies need to take a comprehensive look at organizational design, job design and performance expectations. It encourages employers to be aggressive but realistic in their expectations. If staffing levels are not appropriate or training adequate in the eyes of workers, stress levels will continue to be too high.

The issue for employers is simple: Either they listen to workers when they say the stress is too much, or they pay more in recruitment and training costs when they acquire new workers.

Handling depressed colleagues

In her new book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting (Scribner, January 2008), Terrie M. Williams describes ways to handle the colleague who consistently sabotages group projects or makes the working environment a living hell for everyone else. She shows readers how to recognize the secret signs of depression in their co-workers and gives specific strategies to help troubled colleagues so that everyone can get back to work peacefully and productively. Workaholism can provide the perfect cover for depression, she says.

A New York–based licensed clinical social worker and author of several books, Williams perhaps is best known as the founder of The Terrie Williams Agency, a public relations firm with high-profile clients in the publishing, entertainment and media industries, and as the founder of the Stay Strong Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to empower youth. Less known, perhaps, is the fact that Williams, a victim of depression, is a tireless public advocate for mental health policy. She especially speaks to the prevalence of unacknowledged depression in the female African-American community.

“Depression is a catchword in the mainstream media, but among Black folks it might as well be ‘the D-word’—the shameful thing nobody talks about, even as it’s killing us,” Williams told the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 2007 Annual Legislative Conference.

Figuratively Speaking: Six Facts About Depression

• Nearly one in 10 adults in America suffer from a depressive disorder.
• A full 80 percent of people suffering from depression are not being treated.
• Depression results in one of the highest rates of absenteeism and costs employers more than $51 billion a year in lost productivity.
• Depression is almost 50 percent higher among Black women than among white women, yet only 7 percent of depressed Black women receive treatment, versus 20 percent of white women.
• According to a survey conducted by Mental Health America, 63 percent of people in the African-American community believe depression is a personal weakness, while only 31 percent believe it is a valid medical problem.
• A staggering 92 percent of depressed African-American males do not seek treatment.

Compiled from “BLACK PAIN: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” by Terrie M. Williams.