Depression in the Workplace: The Hidden Shame

Posted on Jan 1, 2000  | Posted in

Remember when the rule in the military about gays serving was “don’t ask, don’t tell”?  Now that gay men and women serve openly in the armed services, the rule seems to apply to workers who have major depression or another mood disorder.  “Jim” (not his real name) called me recently about his struggle with major depression and how his employer treated him after he disclosed it to his supervisor. “Jim” is retired military and currently works as a civilian contractor for one of the service branches. “I can’t concentrate,” he told me, “and I have to miss a lot of work.”  Jim” said in order to keep his job he decided to tell his supervisor that his frequent absences were due to depression and he was going to get help.  “I didn’t get much sympathy,” he said, “in fact my flight authorizations were stopped, which had an impact on my job because it requires a lot of traveling.”  Why were his flight authorizations cancelled? Maybe the boss thought “Jim” would hijack the plane or bomb it to commit suicide and still get life insurance for his family.  Instead of helping a hard-working, experienced employee, the supervisor hurt not only the employee but also the company they both serve. There are two lessons to learn from this story: 1. Negative disclosure consequences could have been avoided had the employer implemented a mental health friendly workplace beginning with educating all supervisors about mental illness; 2. “Jim” needed his own education about depression, too. He had avoided seeing a psychiatrist his primary care doctor recommended perhaps out of fear of more stigma. He didn’t say. “Jim” chose to disclose and get help to restore his productivity, but the supervisor did what far too many supervisors do by stigmatizing him. According to one study conducted by Dr. Carolyn Dewa, Psychiatry professor at the University of Toronto, one-third of workers would hide mental health problems from their manager, with many worried about how it would affect their careers. The survey also found that 64% of people said they would be ‘concerned’ about the performance of a co-worker with mental health problems. Nevertheless, research suggests that workers with a mental health issue perform better if they disclose the issue than if they hide it.  Being honest with managers, for instance, will help to explain absences for treatment, which may be difficult to account for otherwise. Should you disclose your depression? First, ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish by telling your boss, advises Clare Miller, the director of the American Psychiatric Foundation’s Partnership for Workplace Mental Health. The program helps employers develop effective approaches to mental health. For instance, disclosure may be in your best interest if you need special accommodations to do your job, such as the option of starting later in the day because you're on a new medication that makes you sleepy in the morning or taking sick leave if you are having a particularly tough time emotionally. “Disclosure is probably also a good idea if depression if causing your job performance to suffer noticeably”, said Miller. "But try to do it early in the game as opposed to waiting until you get a bad performance review," she added.  Another important consideration for self-disclosure is the atmosphere of your workplace.  Stigma isn’t as bad as it used to be, but it still exists. Former Chairman and President of Highsmith Inc, now part of Demco), employed only 1,000 people, but he implemented a plan to address the mental health of his employees to retain them and keep them productive. The company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP)  provides tools to balance an employee’s work and life. The EAP provides an orientation session for new employees that includes a class called “First Aid Kit for the Mind,” which describes signs of mental illnesses, stress, and substance use disorders and how to maintain mental fitness. An Intranet section that links employees to information on depression and anxiety, relationships, and domestic abuse. Another section, “Leader’s Edge,” features resources for line managers, including “Your Role and the EAP.”  Highsmith strived to make mental health on a par with physical health.  Major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability among adults 15 to 44 years old, affecting nearly 7 percent of adults in the U.S. each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Depression causes an estimated $23 billion in lost productivity in the U.S. each year. " Thirty-four percent of lost productivity is caused by depression and stress disorders, yet 86% of employees with stress or depression prefer to suffer in silence and businesses pay the price,” according to Graeme Cowan, author of  Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder (New Harbinger Publications 2013).  Depression disclosure in the workplace is a matter of dollars and cents. It makes good sense, too, but it is a two-way street between employee and employer.  


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