Meeting the Challenge of Depression in the Workplace

Out of the Blue

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is soon set to become the second most common cause of disability globally, after heart disease. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that the cost to UK business alone of poor mental health management is in the region of £25 billion per year. Estimates of the prevalence of depression vary, but a study by the British Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that one in four adults will suffer from a mental health problem in a given year and the majority of these people will suffer depression.

There’s no doubt that depression is an occupational disease. It is increasingly common in industrialised economies and numerous studies have demonstrated the link between poor management practices, poor working conditions and depression. The challenge of depression is now so widespread that European Health Ministers have called for employers to “create healthy workplaces by introducing ­measures such as exercise, changes to work patterns, sensible hours, and healthy management styles [and] to include mental health in programs dealing with occupational health and safety.”

All types of people suffer from depression and, as debilitating as it is, it’s not an unconquerable barrier to success. Abraham Lincoln is thought to have been a sufferer, as is Isaac Newton. Buzz Aldrin and J.K. Rowling have both spoken of their own struggles with the illness. “Avoiding recruiting or supporting employees with mental health conditions isn’t an option,” according to Sally Burton, chief executive of UK charity the Shaw Trust. “Supporting your workforce is, and will pay dividends in terms of increasing productivity, improving performance and retention, garnering talent and shaping future leaders, helping you to retain a competitive edge.”

The Shaw Trust carried out a survey in 2010 that investigated attitudes to mental health problems in the workplace. They found that 42% of employers still underestimate the prevalence of mental health problems in their organisation. However, 90% of managers now say that they would be happy discussing mental health issues with an employee. This is good news, as changes in the workplace could be the key to reversing the epidemic of depressive illness. 

A number of studies have identified common risk factors in the workplace that can trigger depression. While some stress can be healthy, specific types of stress are highly likely to trigger depression. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) recognises burnout as a distinct pattern of workplace stress in which exhaustion, combined with doubts about the value of one’s work or the ability to do it, lead to depressed mood and diminished performance. According to a study at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, burnout could account for as many as 69% of new cases of depression among workers. Preventing burnout in the workplace is a crucial step in the global fight against depression.


Other studies have looked at the interaction between the effects of job strain and an employee’s feelings of control. These studies repeatedly show that depression is triggered when the demands of someone’s role exceed the amount of control they have in an organisation. For example, employees who encounter customer complaints but who aren’t empowered to do anything about them tend to suffer extremely high levels of stress and depression. Some of this stress can be offset by having a supportive culture in the workplace, where people are encouraged to talk openly and constructively about their concerns, but by far the most effective intervention is for managers to train and empower staff to respond to the challenges that they face.

In the UK it is a legal obligation for organisations to assess the risk of stress-related ill-health, and to take measures to minimise that risk. However, the Shaw Trust’s 2010 survey revealed that only 41% of larger businesses (50 employees and over) and 19% of smaller businesses have a formal mental health policy. Many experts suggest that workplaces should adopt a “mental hygiene” model by identifying risk factors in the workplace and helping employees to manage those risks.

A recent Chartered Management Institute survey revealed that 39% of employees in the UK believe that their workplace is contributing to feelings of excessive stress.  Kevin Friery, clinical director at Right Corecare told the British Psychological Society that managers should consider setting up programmes to teach people the necessary skills to deal with the modern workplace.  "You need a rounded employee - you need somebody who can actually do the job but who can also psychologically cope with the pressure of being an employee," he said. There are many mental health management resources available for organisations large and small. In the UK for example, Acas (the Advice, Conciliation, and Arbitration Scheme – offers guidance and training, much of which is available online, and the NHS Health for Work ( service offers a free advice line. Internationally, a number of private companies provide Employee Assistance Programmes for businesses. These programmes increase employee retention, productivity, and well-being. In 2008, over 5,000 organisations provided over 8 million employees with access to an EAP at a cost of around £8 per employee. 

The way in which jobs are structured has the most significant impact on the levels of stress and depression in the workforce.  Based on the latest findings about workplace depression, Acas suggests a number of measures that all businesses should consider. In order to minimise stress, employees should:

  • Be able to see how their output makes a valuable contribution to the organisation.
  • Be allowed as much variety as possible in the tasks they carry out, the speed at which they work, the way in which they work and even the place in which they work if possible.
  • Receive regular performance feedback – repeated studies have shown that uncertainty about performance is a major stress factor.
  • Be given ownership of their responsibilities.
  • Be provided with suitable opportunities for learning and problem-solving


Workplaces that have better communication and that allow their employees greater flexibility and control have fewer instances of depression.

Of course, not all depression is work related. “If it's work related then you have the responsibility and control to help remedy it,” says an Acas spokesperson. But, “if it's a domestic issue, then talk to the individual about the changes you can implement to make things easier. If they have not already found support, point them in the right direction towards help from their GP or a counsellor.”  Acas also suggests that organisations should offer flexible working patterns if possible: this allows the employee to take control and manage the demands of their job and their illness. Simple, straightforward steps like this will lead to an easier recovery and a more productive return to work for the employee.

It also helps to encourage employees to be proactive about their own mental health. Experts suggest that employees should encourage their employees to seek out opportunities for job enrichment; make it clear that employees have the right to clarify what is expected of them, and the right to ask for reasonable support in meeting those expectations; and ensure that employees know about any help that is available through human resources, employee assistance programmes, or external organisations. 

It’s important to remember that depression is medical condition that differs from feelings of sadness and upset in that it lasts much longer and often causes a number of debilitating symptoms such as insomnia, lethargy and feelings of extreme hopelessness. Depression can have a devastating impact on individuals and organisations. According to the UK Health and Safety Executive, a diagnosis of stress leads to an average of 31 days of illness and, according to the APA, almost 15 percent of those suffering from severe depression will go on to commit suicide. Because of fear, stigma and widespread misunderstanding, as many as 70% of depression sufferers will leave their condition untreated. 

But there is hope. Recent studies show that antidepressant medications are effective for the majority of sufferers of depression, completely eliminating symptoms for many people and leading to a significant reduction in the severity of the condition for others. Structured therapies, in particular Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, have also been found to be effective in multiple scientific trials. In mild depression, simple lifestyle changes such as taking more exercise and getting better sleep have been proven to lead to a powerful improvement. With the right sort of support there is no reason why someone who has suffered from depression, even for prolonged periods, shouldn’t go on to live a happy and fulfilled life.

The workplace has much to offer. Most people, depressed or otherwise, find that they get a great sense of well-being from a good workplace. At its best, the workplace is a place where individuals can contribute towards something meaningful, meet stimulating people, and enjoy overcoming challenges. But all too often, the workplace strips people of control and distances them from their accomplishments. This has been proven to lead to a downward spiral of burnout, hopelessness, and depression. Organisations, Managers and HR professionals are on the frontline of one of the biggest public health battles in modern times. The first step in that battle is to leave behind the stigma of depression and focus on what can be done to prevent it.

If you are currently suffering from, or suspect you may suffer from, depression, talk to your doctor about it. It is a readily treatable condition and many different types of support are available. If you are in immediate danger or distress, please go to, or to, who will direct you to the appropriate suicide prevention and depression support services in your country.


Disclaimer: This article is for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice. Global Business Magazine is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis based on the content of this article. Always consult your doctor before commencing any kind of treatment.

Company : 1902 Media