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A Sad Worker Is A Bad Worker: Data Shows Companies Should Help Depressed Employees

Depression is usually spoken about in hushed tones, but workers who don’t get treated start to seriously slow down. Whether it’s common decency or just a focus on the bottom line, offices need to start paying more attention to workers’ mental health.

When you break a bone or come down with the flu, your boss understands that you need to get treatment in order to do your job. In fact, your company probably subsidizes your health insurance. But depression is different. Winston Churchill’s "black dog" is considered a personal matter—and certainly not your employer’s concern.

But new research suggests there may be a business case for companies taking a more active role in helping depressed employees.

Dr. Carolyn Dewa, a researcher at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, recently looked into the relationships between depression, treatment, and productivity at work. She surveyed 3,000 people, including 255 who had experienced a depressive episode, and found that—unsurprisingly—those that were treated were much more productive than those that weren’t.

In a statement accompanying the research, Dewa reported that, "People who had experienced a moderate depressive episode and received treatment were 2.5 times more likely to be highly productive compared with those who had no treatment," and "people who experienced severe depression were seven times more likely to be high-performing than those who had no treatment."

That lost productivity amounts to real dollars. A 2003 paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that workers with depression cost employers $44 billion a year in lost productive time. And what makes depression especially damaging in the workplace is that, unlike a broken leg, it isn’t obvious and is still stigmatized. So employees show up, often untreated, and simply work below their capacity.

The moral for Dr. Dewa? "It is crucial that employers offer mental health interventions to their employees and support them in engaging in treatment."

Indeed. Depression is uncomfortable, and common humanity dictates we should try to help those who suffer from it. But perhaps even the most bottom-line-oriented manager should start taking the mental health of her employees seriously, too.