This is a growing concern for employers, as mental and behavioural health issues are the main causes of short- and long- term disability leaves in Canadian organizations. Mental illness contributes to disability in the workplace in two ways: “absenteeism” or the days of work missed by employees, and “presenteeism;” when the employee is physically at work but there is low performance and productivity while working.

A fifty-one billion dollar economic burden

The burden of mental illness costs the Canadian economy approximately $51 billion per year. This includes medical costs, direct work losses, decreased quality of life, and does not take presenteeism into account. Presenteeism costs Canadian businesses another $15-25 billion per year.

Depression in the workplace

Depression is one of the most common mental health concerns reported by Canadian workers. Approximately 16 percent of Canadian woman and 11 percent of Canadian men will experience major depression in their lifetime; an alarming concern. This is especially true since a depressive episode is one of the strongest risk factors for presenteeism in the workplace.

To determine the impact of depression in the workplace, the Conference Board of Canada recently published the results of an online survey they did of employees across Canada in early 2013. The goal was to determine if employees who had taken a leave of absence from work due to a depressive episode had difficulties with specific cognitive abilities when they returned to work. This included concentration, memory, decision-making and performing regular tasks associated with their work.

Depression affects not only an employee when they return to work, but also impacts their employers. The study showed that just under two-thirds of supervisors said that they either currently or previously had at least one employee with depression at their workplace.

Just over 2000 Canadians were surveyed, where 30 percent said that they had taken a short- or long-term leave of absence from work due to a health issue at some point in their working career. Of these people, 23 percent said that their leave of absence was due to a mental health condition or due to a physical and mental health issue. Two-thirds of employees who had taken a leave of absence because of mental health issues reported that they had experienced a depressive episode. Eighty-three percent had taken prescription medication for their depression and 80 percent were still taking medication when they returned to work.

When employees who had taken a leave of absence due to a depressive episode returned to work, two-thirds reported that they had difficulties with specific work-related activities.  

Impacts on the employer

Depression affects not only an employee when they return to work, but also impacts their employers. The study showed that just under two-thirds of supervisors said that they either currently or previously had at least one employee with depression at their workplace. Supervisors working in the public sector were more likely to have supervised an employee who had experienced a depressive episode. 

Supervisors had noted that employees returning to work after a depressive episode often experience cognitive difficulties. Some notable behaviours include unexplained decreases in overall productivity, unusual lateness or absences from work, difficulties with memory, concentration, or decision-making, inability to work as a team member, anger in the workplace, health and safety problems, and decreased interest towards work. 

People who experience depression often have unresolved symptoms, even after the depressive episode is finished. The study shows that cognitive symptoms often persist in people, even if they took, or are taking, medications for their depression.

Effectively addressing mental health in the workplace

It is critical to understand the importance in recognizing and dealing with mental health issues in the workplace for both employees and employers.

Organizations need to ensure that supervisors can recognize the symptoms of mental health issues, such as depression, in employees, and offer them the resources and support they need.  Employees who return to work after a depressive episode may need assistance or accommodations to help them successfully reintegrate into the workplace. These types of measures can help employees stay healthy and productive at work and may also help reduce their risk of relapse and instances of absenteeism or presenteeism. 

Depression in the Workplace study, Conference Board of Canada
editorial@mediaplanet.com