Depression in the Workplace

Clinical depression affects about one-fifth of women and one sixth of men in the United States at some point in their lifetimes. Why should employers be aware of this problem?


  • Depression often strikes between the ages of 25 and 44 — the prime working years. At any one time, one employee in 20 may be suffering from depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
  • Depression is costly. Depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year at a cost to employers of $17 to $44 billion.
  • Depression affects productivity. A RAND study found that depression resulted in more days in bed than many other chronic conditions (including diabetes, high blood pressure, ulcers and arthritis).
  • Depression adds to your overall group medical costs. Annual healthcare costs for depressed individuals average 80 percent higher ($4,246 vs. $2,371) than for individuals without depression.
  • Depression is a safety issue. Depressed workers may be more likely to take risks or fail to heed safety precautions.
  • Depression is easily treatable. According to the NIMH, “More than 80% of depressed people can be treated quickly and effectively.”


The key to controlling depression and its related costs is early detection and treatment. Left untreated, clinical depression may become a chronic condition. Of course, only a professional can diagnose depression, but if an employee suddenly has problems with productivity, absenteeism or morale, you should suspect depression. Individuals with bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, alternate between extremes of depression and mania.

Train supervisors to look for the following warning signs.

Warning Signs of Depression

  • Depression that lasts more than two weeks or is more intense than “the blues.”
  • Loss of interest in everyday activities
  • Complaints of tiredness or unexplained aches and pains
  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Talk of death or suicide.


Warning Signs of Mania

  • Elation, or mania
  • Irritability
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • Increased energy, activity, talking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Disturbed ability to make decisions
  • Grandiose notions
  • Being easily distracted

(adapted from NIMH publication).


When an employee shows five or more of these symptoms for more than two weeks and they interfere with his or her work, depression may be the cause. Supervisors cannot diagnose depression; however, they can help depressed workers get the help they need. To avoid violating an employee’s privacy, approach the problem from the standpoint of productivity. A supervisor should first discuss any productivity-related problems with the affected employee — whether it is increased absenteeism, low morale or failure to meet performance goals. Then they should mention to the employee that if health or family concerns are causing these problems, help is available. An employee assistance program (EAP) can provide initial screening services and refer the employee to the appropriate care provider, all on a confidential basis. If your company doesn’t have an EAP, refer the employee to a local mental health service provider.

For free brochures on depression and its treatment, call the NIMH at 1-800-421-4211 or visit their Web site. And for more information on how an EAP can help your company deal with mental health and family life issues, please call our office.