Depression In The Workplace

Not very long ago, in an era of often misguided and frequently fanciful medical practice, it was fashionable to "cure" the feebleminded and the melancholic with an assortment of peculiar and mind-boggling treatments, most of which were aimed at anesthetizing the patient and keeping the patient off the streets. It was the 1930s, and Frankenstein scared the daylights out of many an adolescent who would later be off to war to witness "man's inhumanity to man" in the 1940s.

Columns From: 11/1/2002 Modern Machine Shop,

Not very long ago, in an era of often misguided and frequently fanciful medical practice, it was fashionable to "cure" the feebleminded and the melancholic with an assortment of peculiar and mind-boggling treatments, most of which were aimed at anesthetizing the patient and keeping the patient off the streets. It was the 1930s, and Frankenstein scared the daylights out of many an adolescent who would later be off to war to witness "man's inhumanity to man" in the 1940s.

Returning soldiers, sailors and marines, gun-shy and shell-shocked, became the war-torn experimental subjects of the "mind-doctors" as they scrambled for work in an economy vibrant with promise and booming with potential. Work then was done in a relatively tranquil and routine place.

The next 30 years would witness an upheaval in the social and psychological fabric of the nation's consciousness. Work changed dramatically and swiftly, leaving the comforts of the past in the ash heap of an uncertain future.

We are now working longer hours than our parents ever did, the equivalent of an extra month and a half a year. And the collective psyches of the men and women in today's workforce continue to groan for emotional relief. Many turn to the various psychological schools of thought for help: transactional analysis, meditation, group therapy, Rolfing and, of course, pills and medications to contend with changes far beyond their control.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 20+ million American adults suffer from clinical depression between the ages of 25 and 45, their most productive years on the job. Depression results in more sick days than any other major illness except advanced coronary heart disease. Yet two-thirds of these people go undiagnosed and untreated each year. All of this is at a staggering cost of $50+ billion in lost workdays, job turnover, inability to make systematic decisions, decreased productivity, increased smoking and alcoholism, and fatigue.

But there is a silver lining: More than 80 percent of depressed people can be treated quickly and effectively and returned to their jobs fully productive. The key is to recognize the symptoms and receive appropriate treatment—not an easy task for many workers and managers alike.

Much employee depression comes from the stress they experience on the job. This stress can be "good" (eustress) or "bad" (distress), and by itself it may not meaningfully change normal behavior. However, the snowballing effects of stress can cause a person to move toward what researchers call a "coping threshold." When that ceiling is overshot, a person's ability to function is at risk.

Many companies are helping their workers cope with depression. In the next few months I will address the causes and symptoms of depression, the process of identifying and treating depression in the workplace, and what managers can do and what they shouldn't do to recognize and help depressed employees. Tighten your seat belts!

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