It’s common to feel down on yourself or experience a case of the blues from time to time. Maybe you experienced feelings of depression when a friend canceled on a date or a colleague received the promotion you worked so hard to get. These emotions are entirely normal and often remind us that we’re alive. For most people, it’s something that will subside after a few days. However, for others, depression is a crippling condition that can leave you bedridden and lose your sense of purpose in life.

Globally, a staggering 264 million people of all ages struggle with depression. As was mentioned above, mild depression can cause a temporary feeling of being down, but major depression can lead to suicide. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 800,000 people die due to suicide each year, which is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in 2017, an estimated 17.3 percent of adults in the United States over age 18 have suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year, translating to 7.1 percent of all adults. In that same year, nearly 11 million adults in the United States suffered from one major depressive episode with severe impairment, which translates to 4.5 percent of all adults in the country.

The numbers are significant, but what stands out the most is the volume of those who experienced major depressive episodes resulting in severe impairment. Depression isn’t how it’s depicted on TV or what we might think of it. Depression is dangerous, and in its worst form, people are bound to their beds, unable to get up even to shower. It’s a crippling and debilitating condition that has serious consequences. For those who are employed, it can cause problems.

Let’s take a look below at what major depression is and how it can potentially impact your employment.

What is Major Depressive Disorder (Depression)?

Depression is a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities a person once found joy. The condition is often referred to as clinical depression or major depressive disorder. It affects how you think, feel, and behave, leading to various physical and emotional issues. It may cause problems completing your daily activities, and in its severest form, you might feel as though life isn’t worth living.

Depression has long been viewed as a weakness rather than a mental health condition. If you’ve gone through it, you might have been told to just “snap out of it” or “get over it.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Depression requires long-term treatment to help put you on the road to recovery. However, don’t feel discouraged because most people with depression feel better with psychotherapy, medication, or both.

Symptoms of Depression

Although depression might only pop up on random occasions, others will have multiple episodes. During these depressive episodes, symptoms might occur most of the day, every day, and might include the following symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances, which might be oversleeping or insomnia
  • Loss of pleasure or interest in most of all normal activities, including hobbies, sex, or sports
  • Feelings of tearfulness, sadness, hopelessness, or emptiness
  • Frustration, irritability, or angry outbursts, even over small matters
  • A reduction in appetite or weight loss or increased food cravings and weight gain
  • Lack of energy, tiredness, making small tasks even more challenging to conduct
  • Agitation, anxiety, restlessness
  • Slowed speaking, body movements, or thinking
  • Trouble concentrating, thinking, remembering things, or making decisions
  • Feeling of guilt, worthlessness, or fixating on past failures & self-blame
  • Frequent or recurring suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide, or intrusive thoughts of death
  • Unexplained physical issues that include headaches or back pain

For many people struggling with depression, symptoms are severe enough to cause noticeable issues in their day-to-day activities, such as social activities, school, relationships with others, or at work. Some people will feel unhappy or generally miserable without knowing why.

Depression in the Workplace


Major depressive disorders have become one of the United States’ most costly illnesses. When left untreated, depression is as costly as AIDS or heart disease to the United States economy. It costs over $26 billion in direct treatment costs and $51 billion annually in absenteeism from work and lost productivity.

Unfortunately, depression affects people in their prime working years and can last a lifetime without help. More than 80 percent of those with major depressive disorders can be treated. With early recognition, intervention, and support, most employees will overcome their depression and get their lives back on track.

Signs of Workplace Depression

Unfortunately, we’ve all been trained to “leave our problems at the door” when we show up to work. This toxic culture in the workplace can lead to symptoms going undetected or be invisible. However, if you know the signs, it can lead to initiating a conversation.

Maybe you’ve noticed a colleague who keeps to themselves lately, which is out of character. Or perhaps an employee has been coming in late to meetings or missing them altogether. If so, it’s time to dig a bit deeper to find the cause. Remember, the symptoms of depression will vary from one person to another. Since it’s a delicate topic, you should approach it with care.

Employees’ Attitudes Toward Depression

In many cases, an employee struggling with depression won’t seek help because they fear the effect it will have on their job. They are also concerned about confidentiality. In other cases, employees are unaware they have depression or fear their insurance won’t cover the costs.

Most employers will refer an employee dealing with depression for help if they know about the symptoms. An estimated 64 percent of NMHA survey respondents said they’d refer an employee to an EAP health professional.

The Employer’s Role

As was mentioned above, depression has the potential to be debilitating. With the proper care, 80 to 90 percent of those struggling will recover and improve, but it takes a supportive work environment for that to occur. An online survey conducted by 1,500 full-time workers showed that 86 percent believe it’s essential for a company’s culture to support mental health.

Ideally, your employer should create an environment where everyone is educated about recognizing high-risk behavior and offer a secure portal where the observations can be submitted. If you have someone who you believe is a threat to themselves, and you make a decision on the fly about how to handle it, it’s hard to consider all the factors and consistently make the right decisions.

Establish Psychological Safety

Employers should also focus on creating an environment and culture that employees feel comfortable sharing what they’re dealing with. It doesn’t have to be an explicit conversation about their mental health to create a healthy environment.

Sharing can be as simple as a one-word check-in at the start of a meeting, which establishes psychological safety. Without the cursory level of this kind of security, you can’t have a more profound conversation about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, or trauma-related mental health issues.

It’s a day-to-day process, and so much of it is something simple that people overlook—treat people with kindness. You can hold a person accountable but still be kind to them. Even the language around mental health can make a world of difference.

The phrase “mental health condition” is less stigmatizing than “mental disorder” or “mental illness.” When news breaks about something serious, it’s always linked to a person’s mental state, perpetuating the stigma surrounding it.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) help reduce the stigma around mental health issues and depression and provide support to employees. For example, Johnson & Johnson launched an ERG program known as Mental Health Diplomats in 2017. It’s geared toward providing awareness training for colleagues and helps to create a mental health-friendly workplace. The company’s employee assistance program (EAP) also includes trained therapists onsite, which is extremely helpful.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests the following strategies for employers and how they can support their mental health:

  • Train supervisors in depression recognition
  • Use EAPs to promote greater awareness of anxiety and depression
  • Offer health insurance benefits that allow employees to access psychiatric services
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