Depression Is No Laughing Matter, Especially for Employers Mike Coppola/Getty Images Entertainment

Depression Is No Laughing Matter, Especially for Employers

The tragic death of comedian Robin Williams has re-opened the public discussion about mental illness.

If laughter is the best medicine, it's cruelly ironic that a man who soothed millions of souls with his comedic genius was felled by the darkness inside him. 

I'm not one of those people who consider social media to be the definitive barometer of public sentiment. But it's hard to dismiss the universal outpouring of love for Robin Williams that I've seen among my friends and colleagues on Facebook and other sites. I had no idea that the man who brought us "Mork from Ork," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and other indelible characters touched so many people's hearts. It's as if we all lost a close, personal friend.

Upon further reflection, the reaction shouldn't come as a surprise. Millions of people – myself included – associate Robin Williams with laughter, and laughter makes us feel good. As much as any movie can, "Mrs. Doubtfire" – one of my all-time favorites – always seems to lift me out of whatever doldrums I'm in at the moment. 

Laughter might be the best medicine for what ails us, but depression – as we've learned – is no laughing matter. It's true that there can be a fine line between mental illness and creative genius, and Williams is not the first entertainer who struggled to negotiate that line. But depression isn't a problem that only affects Hollywood's elite.

Depression, bipolar disorder and other depressive illnesses affect nearly one in five adults at some point in their lifetimes, according to the University of Michigan Health System's Depression Center. 

We've come a long way in our understanding and awareness of mental illness. These days, when we hear of someone struggling with a mental disorder, it doesn't conjure images of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." And unlike the fictional wiseguys in "The Sopranos," most people don't consider it a sign of weakness when a loved one or colleague visits a therapist. 

Still, I bet many people would be shocked to learn that depression ranks as the No. 1 contributor to disability in the United States and Canada, and among the top five causes of disability throughout the world, according to the University of Michigan Depression Center. 

Here's where employers should be concerned. 

Depression is linked to more than $44 billion per year in lost workplace productivity. Why? Because employees with depression lose approximately 2.3 workdays per month. And even when they're at work, they might struggle to accomplish as many tasks or perform at the same level as their colleagues (a situation known as presenteeism). 

In fact, employers bear the brunt of the costs of depression. According to the University of Michigan Depression Center, nearly 63 percent of the $83 billion in annual economic costs associated with depression come from workplace losses. (That number includes direct costs of health care services and indirect financial costs.)

So, like it or not, employers are on the front lines. 

What can employers do, and what should they know? At the bare minimum, they should be aware that it's illegal to discriminate against employees and job applicants because of mental disabilities (real or perceived), as Robin Paggi explains in a recent column in the Bakersfield Californian. 

Because major depressive disorder is so prevalent, Paggi also urges employers and supervisors to learn "what to do if employees reveal they have the disorder (or something similar) or if it appears that they do."

Citing the book "How to Talk to a Depressed Employee" by Joni Johnston, Psy.D., Paggi recommends a seven-step process:

  1. State your concern for the employee. 
  2. Talk about observable behavior. "You missed several important deadlines over the past two weeks."
  3. Acknowledge the change in behavior. "That's just not like you."
  4. Encourage action. (If the company does not have an employee assistance program, encourage the employee to seek professional help.)
  5. Be sympathetic, but limit the conversation if the employee begins to reveal personal information.
  6. Reinforce your concern. "I really want to help you get back on track."
  7. Reinforce the need for performance improvement. 
"It's up to you whether you seek professional help or not, but I still need for you to meet your deadlines."

The good news is that effective treatment can help reduce depressive systems and improve workplace outcomes such as productivity. 

"Depression can be devastating," Paggi says. "However, with the right treatment, it can be managed and worked around. Getting the right treatment is up to the employee. Helping the employee work around it (with reasonable accommodations and performance discussions) is up to the employer."

Send an e-mail with your thoughts to [email protected].

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