Depressed At Work

Depression may be contagious. And those who could “catch” it include a depressed individual’s family and co-workers.

Dr. Michael Yapko, a clinical psychologist in San Diego and author of Breaking the Patterns of Depression, believes depression is more a socially transmitted problem rather than bio-chemistry run amok. For that reason, he argues, depression can “infect” families and others in the sphere of a depressed person.

Yapko told a recent psychotherapy conference that, according to a World Health Organization report, depression is the fourth most significant cause of suffering and disability after heart disease, cancer and traffic accidents, and that by 2020, it will rank second.

Yapko said the largest number of sufferers are between 25 and 44 years of age. That’s significant, since this group is most actively involved in childbearing, childrearing and career building. So they can have a powerful effect on their children’s coping as well as the atmosphere at work.

Organizations also bear the brunt of depression in the form of decreased productivity, increases in errors, accidents and absenteeism, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

In the workplace, listless, distracted and fatigued people who may feel hopeless, helpless and teary are hard to work with or for. Days may seem long, joyless and pointless, and despite the best intentions of others, negative moods can take a toll on anyone who comes in contact with them. In many ways, this makes depression more a social problem that a medical condition.

The treatment of depression in the workplace (and elsewhere) traditionally has been to supply the individual with anti-depressants. However, some research suggests there is no evidence that depression results from a deficiency of serotonin in the brain. Some researchers believe anti-depressants provide similar benefits to placebos for depressed people. At the same time, side-effects of these drugs, like gastrointestinal problems, sleep and sex disorders and even suicide can outweigh any potential benefits.

Yapko recommends that companies screen people for depression at work and teach staff skills to deal with the many causes of depression (genetic and bio-chemical explanations are only two of many reasons people may become depressed). There are five ways companies can intervene to stop the spread of depression through a workplace:

1. Teach Problem Solving Skills

Increasingly, staff have to solve complex problems on the job. Helping staff learn to take a problem apart by first describing it as accurately as possible, reducing the problem to component parts and finally planning a step-by-step resolution can help. Too often, people feel overwhelmed by tasks and unable to even begin to know what to do about an issue. A related difficulty is the tendency to believe that one is powerless to make a difference. Learned helplessness refers to a state in which we do not believe that any action we take will change our situation. Many times, when workers subscribe to this idea, they’ll say, “That’s the way it’s done”, “it’ll never change” or “I just do what I’m told”. These attitudes can be a recipe for depression. Finding ways to solve problems at work, asking for help and believing in one’s ability to at least make small changes is important.

2. Improve Communication

Often, people don’t talk about what they need to with each other to settle difficulties and may keep silent until they explode. At other times, staff will use e-mail when they should pick up the phone. Or they’ll completely avoid difficult conversations. Deciding what to say and how to say it as well as the medium in which to say it (in person, over the phone, in writing via e-mail) is key to keeping the air clear between you and others. Allowing misunderstandings to fester can have a serious impact on morale. Low morale can be a euphemism for a depressed work environment that clear communication can remedy.

3. Improve How People Think About Situations

A key way to fight depression at work is helping people reframe the beliefs they hold that may prevent adequate coping. For example, if an individual tends to use catastrophic thinking, he tells himself: “I have to do this perfectly or I’ll be fired, not get the promotion, or be seen as completely incompetent”. This kind of thinking can lead to procrastination, poor performance reviews, fear of making mistakes and a lack of creativity. These outcomes are stressful and decrease ones quality of life. Other belief systems like “Everyone at work has to like me or I’m no good” or “I have to be right because if I’m not I’ll be seen as weak and incompetent” can result in appeasing and approval-seeking or defensive and controlling behaviour.

4. Deal With Toxic Situations At Work

Leaders, managers and supervisors need to remain aware of their responsibility to deal constructively with difficult situations that arise at work. Tolerating bad manners, bullying and harassment can lower morale and contribute to a depressed work environment. Asking people to put up with disrespect and humiliating circumstances on an ongoing basis can be depressing. Ensuring that the company is committed to dealing directly with issues as they arise is important. Teaching people to problem solve, change their thought patterns or be better communicators will only be successful if managers are willing to champion a respectful workplace.

5. Target Lifestyle

Eating and sleeping well and getting exercise can combat depression and contribute to elevated moods. Helping staff understand the importance of these basics is an easy place to intervene. Providing good food in the cafeteria, time and encouragement for exercise and information about good sleep habits is important.

Since depression can circulate in the workplace, employers must know how to protect their organizations. This doesn’t mean isolating depressed workers or giving them open-ended prescriptions or drug plans. The best remedy for depression is targeting the myriad of factors that can lead to or exacerbate the problem. Bring the topic to people’s attention and if you have a depressed work environment, act. Waiting, watching or standing by helplessly is depressing but trying to change the situation isn’t.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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