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LeadingEdition: E-Newsletter for Purdue University Supervisors

Depression in the workplace

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the number one cause of disability in the United States. One employee in five is either currently depressed, has been depressed, or will be at some point.

A great majority of depression sufferers, even those with the severest disorders, can be helped with treatment. Unfortunately, only one in ten will ever seek treatment. Many individuals are afraid, ashamed, or unaware that their problems are caused by depression.

The workplace pays dearly for the millions of people who do not treat their depression. According to the American Psychiatric Association, depression cost employers more than any other illness in terms of lost productivity in 2002. In turn, depression can cause stress on an entire work group, leading to tension, frustration, and anger.

As a supervisor or manager, you will most likely encounter depression in your work area at one time or another. It is important that you understand depression and know how to respond. The Employee Assistance Program on campus provides help for supervisors and confidential counseling for depression sufferers (49-47707, www.purdue.edu/eap).

Causes of depression

Depression can strike anyone regardless of age, background, socioeconomic status, or gender. In general, depression is caused by one of the following factors:

  • Biological: People with depression typically have too little or too much of certain brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and norepenephrine, for example.) Changes in these chemicals may cause or contribute to depression.
  • Cognitive: People with negative thinking patterns -- pessimism, low self esteem, constant worrying -- are more likely to develop depression.
  • Genetic: A family history of depression increases the risk for depressive illness. Depression, however, can also occur in people who have no family members with the disorder.
  • Situational: Difficult life events, including the death of a loved one, financial problems, moving to a new place, or starting a new job can contribute to depression.
  • Co-Occurring: Depression is more likely to occur along with certain illnesses -- stroke, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, thyroid, anemia, and hormonal disorders.

Symptoms of depression

In the workplace, symptoms often include decreased productivity and morale, absenteeism, frequent statements of being tired, complaints of aches and pains, and problems with concentration.

Supervisor's role

Your goal should be to return the employee to satisfactory job performance and to promote early detection and treatment. This can be accomplished through respectful communication and objective assessments of job performance and behavior.

If you are concerned about an employee, consider using the following language:

?I?m concerned that recently you?ve been late to work and aren?t meeting your performance objectives. If personal issues are affecting your work, you may speak to one of our Employee Assistance professionals. This service is confidential. Whether or not you choose to contact Employee Assistance, you will still be expected to meet your performance goals.

It is important to provide support, including flexible scheduling, for employees seeking help. With some flexibility, continue to expect the employee to meet performance goals. The Employee Assistance Program (49-47707) and Employee Relations (49-41679) can help you respond to specific issues in your area.

Planning ahead

Before depression hits your workplace, be sure to have clear written job descriptions for each employee and regular annual performance reviews. This will allow you to deal with any performance problems before they escalate.

Also work to reduce the stigma of depression in your area through education, compassion, and discussion. Depression is a medical problem and there are many treatment options. When you show your support, employees will be more likely to seek out the help they need to return to their best selves.

- Jolene Robertson, Employee Assistance Program Manager
  Human Resource Services


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LeadingEdition is an electronic newsletter for Purdue University supervisors.  It is produced and distributed by Purdue University Human Resources four times annually.  If you have questions, comments or suggestions relating to the newsletter, please call 49-41679 or email us.  Thank you.