Thursday, October 28, 2010

Depression: Should I Tell the Boss?

By Gina Newsome Duncan, MD
Depression is the leading cause of disability among people ages 15-44, affecting nearly 7 percent of the adult population in a given year. That means that close to one in ten American adults is suffering from depression at any given point in time. A recent CNN Health article highlighted the dilemma one woman with depression faced when considering whether to tell her employer.

It may not be talked about much, but depression is most certainly present in the workplace. What are the effects? People suffering from depression can experience a decrease in concentration, difficulty making decisions, feelings of isolation, feeling slowed down in their thinking and mental processing, and poor sleep, which can lead to daytime fatigue. All of these factors can result in poor job performance. In fact,a decline in job performance is often the wake-up call that someone is experiencing depression and needs to do something.

If you feel that you may be suffering from major depressive disorder and are concerned about the effect on your work, what should you do?

  1. A good first step is to talk with a psychiatrist or your primary care physician about your symptoms and explore possible treatment options. Psychiatrists and primary care physicians are familiar with employment issues and should be able to get you started on a plan to address your concerns.
  2. Find out about your company’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP). It is in your company’s best interest for you to function at your optimal level, and most large companies offer some type of EAP. In most cases, confidentiality and privacy requirements apply to EAP services, and the employer does not usually know who is or is not using them, except in cases where the employer referred the worker to the EAP. Employee Assistance Programs offer a broad range of services, including psychological assessment, counseling, support and referrals.
Other things to keep in mind:

Depression is real, but it is not as visible as something like a broken leg. Depression can be difficult for others to accept as a true illness or valid reason for being excused from work. As a society, we can be stoic when it comes to issues of emotional distress; “Just suck it up and keep going,” we tell ourselves and others. It can be hard for others to understand or appreciate the effects of a major depressive episode or another mental illness unless they or a loved one have experienced it. Employers are beginning to understand that attending to their employees’ mental health is not just a nice thing to do, it makes good business sense.

Federal laws protect the rights of workers who become medically ill or disabled. This includes workers who are unable to work due to a mental illness such as major depression. However, employer sensitivity toward such employees can vary, particularly if the employee has not taken official medical leave but is frequently calling out sick or requesting time off for regular psychiatrist or therapist appointments during work hours.

Whether or not to disclose your illness to your boss and/or your coworkers is an individual decision that depends on your company’s culture and your own preference. But here are a couple of thoughts to keep in mind: If your symptoms are not affecting your job performance in a visible way and if, with the help of your doctor, you have started a treatment plan that you are finding helpful, then disclosing your illness to your employer may not be necessary. If, on the other hand, your symptoms are severe, causing frequent missed days of work or other job performance issues that threaten your employment, and if you have not yet started treatment, then being proactive and addressing the issue with someone you trust, like a doctor, Employee Assistance Program or a boss, can be an important step.

Have you experienced firsthand the effects of depression in the workplace? If so, how was it addressed? How can we reduce the culture of stigma that surrounds mental illness in the workplace?

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Comments are reviewed before posting, and comments that include profanity or other inappropriate material will not be posted. The comment section is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional medical advice. All decisions about clinical care should be made in consultation with your treating physician. If you need help with a mental health issue, please visit our resource page.