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The Moody Blues

Depressed workers bring the whole company down, so get them the help they need.

Entrepreneurs who run bars, restaurants and child-care or elder-care businesses have a new worry: depression. Their employees are more likely than those in other fields to get depressed enough to hurt productivity, boost absenteeism and deflate morale, according to a 2007 government study. And we're not talking about a bluesy afternoon: A major depressive episode, as the 2007 "National Survey on Drug Use and Health" defines it, lasts two weeks or longer and involves a depressed mood, a general lack of interest and possible problems with sleep, eating, concentration and productivity. The annual cost to U.S. companies is $30 billion to $44 billion, according to the study.

Seven percent of full-time employees--8.1 million workers--reported major depression in the previous year. Personal-care and food and beverage workers were most likely to experience it; they constituted 10.8 percent and 10.3 percent of reported cases, respectively. Women were more susceptible than men, and part-timers were at higher risk than full-time workers. Employees age 18 to 25 were most likely to experience depressive illness.

If your work force includes a high-risk group or you suspect you have depressed employees for other reasons, information is the best remedy, says Clare Miller, director of the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, a program of the American Psychiatric Foundation. Make sure employees know about the mental health benefits covered by their insurance, and include information about depression and treatment in health program documents. Miller says that some insurers offer telephone screening. Use it. "It's important that you get your money's worth for that health-care benefit," she says.

If insurance won't cover mental health care, look to local mental health organizations. They are usually happy to work with employers at little or no cost, says Miller. "If you're a smaller company and don't have as rich a benefits package, reach out to the community."

Good treatment exists. More than 80 percent of employees who receive anti-depressants, for instance, report improved work performance, Miller says. However, you're limited in your ability to direct workers toward effective care. Depression, like other illnesses, is a disability that's protected from unfair discrimination. If you suspect that company performance is being affected by depression, couch any discussions with employees in terms of job requirements. "Keep it focused on work performance," Miller cautions. "Don't say, 'I think you have depression. You need to be on meds.'"

After you've educated, screened and counseled employees, some may not seek treatment or address unsatisfactory performance. In these cases, discussing termination as an option may seem like a downer, but it can motivate them to seek treatment. "People want to stay at work," Miller notes. And just having a job can be a powerful remedy: According to the "National Survey on Drug Use and Health," the rate of depression was nearly twice as high among the unemployed.

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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This article was originally published in the April 2008 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Moody Blues.

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