Mary, usually a cheerful, pleasant and professional administrative assistant with a law firm in Edmonton, began to notice she was distracted and lethargic at work. She often felt irritable with colleagues and would cry in her office for no reason at all. At home, her sleep became disturbed and her appetite increased. She felt hopeless, pessimistic and cynical about her future. She missed deadlines and her usual excellent job performance began to suffer.
Mary, it turned out, was showing classic symptoms of depression, brought on by difficulty delegating and a belief that she had to be superwoman at home, at work and with family.
Mary is not alone in her distress. According to Bill Wilkerson, CEO of the Toronto-based Global Business and Economic Roundtable on Addiction and Mental Health, 10 to 30 percent of the global labour force is suffering from mental ill health, including depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress and addiction.
It’s a serious issue, not only for sufferers but for business.
The Global Business and Economic Roundtable estimates that employee mental health issues cost companies about $16 billion a year through absenteeism, disability insurance, lost productivity, reduced sales and uncollected receivables, increases in short term disability rates and prescription drug fees, and rising wage replacement costs.
At the 2nd Annual Symposium of The National Institute of Disability Management and Research in Ottawa, Wilkerson called the problem of chronic undetected and untreated mental health difficulties in the workplace the health issue of the 21st century.
He predicted mental health related disability insurance and group health claims could climb to more than 50 per cent of the total number of claims dealt with through business-employee plans over the next three to five years.
Wilkerson said these costs are “an unfunded liability permeating business in this country and affecting the productivity of the economy and the performance of individual business organizations.”
While workplace stress has always existed, Wilkerson said that today it’s more intense. Job insecurity and the pressure brought on by the demands of the information age increase anxiety, distress and depression in the workforce.
According to Wilkerson, “job security is an antique” and the advent of the 24/7 work schedule and the proliferation of technology like email have made people feel they’re constantly on the job.
With the economic downturn, workplace stress must be addressed more than ever said Wilkerson.
He recommends training personnel to listen, empathize and understand others’ needs. He advocates developing healthy workplaces where employees know what is expected, and where toxic office politics can’t fester.
Wilkerson suggests companies promote balance between work/personal life to reduce stress. He said “one of the reasons you have dry cleaning, day care and elder care onsite frankly is because men haven’t changed. There are more women in the workplace but they still do more of that stuff and men are still operating 10 to 30 years out of sync.” Providing these kinds of onsite services becomes a competitive advantage helping to “recruit and retain the best people you can” says Wilkerson. He suggests training human resources staff along with company managers, supervisors and executives to recognize early signs of mental health problems. Some indicators, he says, are missed deadlines, interpersonal problems, inconsistent work quality, tardiness, a lack of energy, pessimism or cynicism about projects and the company, and general hopelessness.
Depression can occur at the senior executive level too, he said. There depressed CEOs and senior executives tend to become isolated from their leadership team and the company as a whole. There is little consultation, decisions are made in a vacuum and are often short sighted and fear based. For example, layoffs might be made impulsively because of fears of dropping share prices that may never occur.
Concerted effort among business in dealing with mental health problems like depression is even more urgent given the events of September 11th. Wilkerson believes that in the next 90 to 120 days, business will face post traumatic stress syndrome on an unprecedented scale. He warns businesses to be ready for “waves of absenteeism, sudden downturns in the management of receivable and payables, [and] call centers becoming less efficient” due to trauma symptoms such as sleeplessness, irritability, inability to concentrate and recurring distressing thoughts.
We, too, see increases in worker and leader stress even before the US attacks due to advanced technology, family/work imbalance and toxic office politics. To deal with stressed staff, companies are creating solutions such as funding babysitting for single mothers making client calls from home in the evening, generating programs to reduce low workplace morale (e.g., anti-harassment policies) and directly addressing problems of lack of leadership (e.g., offering leader coaching). Along with Wilkerson, who sees the workplace as no longer just a job, but a community to which a worker belongs, we observe a shift away from a mechanistic model of work (where workers are likened to machines plugged into shifts for money) to one where colleagues have become part of a workers social experience. At its best, work can be a place of personal fulfillment.
Fulfillment finally came to Mary at work. Her employer recognized her condition as serious and not an issue of poor performance. With gentle encouragement, her supervisor encouraged her to seek professional assistance. Mary used the company’s EAP psychological services and through her sessions began to make some changes in her life.
Rather than passively accepting and prioritizing others requests, she re- structured her life to reduce her own high self-expectations and address her own needs. She reduced her workweek to three days, obtained increased decision-making and delegating authority, took up curling and began to call on other family members to complete household tasks.
She has never looked back.
Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.