Two-thirds of employees returning from absence due to depression are less productive: CBOC study

Oct 16, 2013

DepressionTwo out of three employees who return to work after an absence due to depression have trouble concentrating, remembering things, making decisions, and performing tasks - even though they may no longer be depressed. This is one of several key findings from a recent Conference Board of Canada survey of 2,004 randomly selected people working part or full time, including 727 front-line supervisors.

The findings, says the survey report, can help employers develop better programs to support a successful return to work. The report advises that graduated return to work strategies or work accommodations can help reintegrate employees into the workplace and reduce the risk of relapse or recurrence. In addition, says the report, managers need proper training to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues so that employees can get the right resources and support. (For more suggestions, see " What employers can do.")

Why this is important to workplaces

The report prefaces its findings with essential facts for workplaces. For example:

  • prevalence - 1 in 5 Canadians will experience a mental health issue in his or her life, and about 4% of working adults experience a depression at any given time.

  • duration - people can experience cognitive problems several years after a major depressive episode, even when no longer depressed. This can have a significant impact on people returning to work after a depression-related leave of absence.

  • effect on work - mental and behavioural health issues are the principal causes of short- and long-term disability leaves reported by organizations in Canada. However, presenteeism is a greater drain on productivity than absenteeism. A major depressive episode can lead to an 11% decline in a person’s productivity due to greater confusion, inattention, memory issues, apathy, and poor sleep.

  • costs - absenteeism and presenteeism due to depression, chronic depression, bipolar disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and agoraphobia costs the Canadian economy $20.7 billion a year. By 2030, these costs are expected to reach $29.1 billion.

Key research findings

Among the survey findings are the following:

  • 655 (33%) of the 2,004 employees surveyed had taken either a short- or long-term leave of absence due to a health issue at some point in their career. Almost a quarter of these employees (23%) reported that their leave was due to a mental health condition or both a physical and mental health issue.

  • actual numbers may be higher. Other research has shown that the stigma of mental health issues may deter people from acknowledging they had taken a leave of absence due to a mental health condition, and that women are more likely than men to report that they are experiencing or have experienced a mental health issue. In the Conference Board of Canada survey, men were much more likely than women to respond that they "would rather not say" if they had experienced a depressive episode.

  • 7 in 10 (69%) of the 147 employees who had taken a mental health-related leave of absence reported that they had experienced a depressive episode. Most (83%) took prescription medication to treat their depression, and 80% were still taking medication when they returned to work.

  • older employees were less likely than younger colleagues to say their leave of absence was related to mental health. However, older employees who reported that they had experienced a mental health issue were just as likely to disclose that the issue was related to depression and that they had taken prescription medication to treat their condition.

  • two-thirds of employees (66%) reported experiencing difficulties with specific activities on their return to work. People most commonly had trouble concentrating and remembering things.

What employers can do

The survey findings underscore the need for graduated return to work strategies or work accommodations that can help reintegrate employees and reduce the risk of relapse or recurrence. The report also says managers need training to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health issues so that employees can get the right resources and support. The report cites the following as core symptoms of a major depressive episode:

  1. depressed mood which lasts most of the day
  2. noticeable lack of interest or pleasure in activities
  3. significant weight loss when not dieting, weight gain, or changes in appetite
  4. insomnia or excessive daytime sleepiness
  5. unintentional movements (restlessness) or slow-down
  6. fatigue or loss of energy
  7. feelings of worthlessness or excessive and inappropriate guilt
  8. cognitive difficulties - diminished ability to think, concentrate or make decisions
  9. recurrent thoughts of death or suicide, a suicide attempt, or a specific plan for committing suicide.

These suggestions address existing circumstances. A complementary approach would also look at prevention. For instance, workplaces can

  • contribute to mental wellbeing. Creating a healthy workplace environment helps people feel productive and achieve their potential.

  • eliminate stigma so that employees feel comfortable acknowledging personal difficulties and requesting assistance, whether through an EAP/EFAP or their supervisor.

See below for more reading on workplace health and well-being, as well as resources available from WSPS and elsewhere. Also, learn more about the Conference Board of Canada’s survey report, Depression in the Workplace: Insights from Employees and Supervisors.

Additional reading

In an upcoming issue of WSPS Network News, watch for coverage of Protecting Workers' Mental Health: Resolving tensions between law and the new National Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, an October 22 presentation by Martin Shain, hosted by the Ontario Workplace Health Coalition.

How WSPS can help

WSPS offers a number of healthy workplace resources, ranging from the strategic to the tactical. See below for examples.

  • healthy workplace downloads, including:
    • Creating Healthy Workplaces
    • Psychosocial Risk Management: What Every Business Manager Should Know
    • The Business Case for a Healthy Workplace
  • consulting. WSPS healthy workplace consultants can work with you to develop a planned, target-driven approach to implementing excellence in healthy workplaces.
  • instructor-led training: The 1% Solution: Being a Healthy Workplace Champion (1/2 day)
  • e-learning programs on return to work, stress in the workplace and other topics
  • conferences and trade shows. Check out our fall events for related sessions.

Additional resources

  • Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace offers free public resources, including information, strategies, tools and initiatives "to employers and organizations who recognize that a healthier workplace can improve their bottom line."

  • Guarding Minds @ Work, a comprehensive set of resources designed to protect and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace. GM@W resources allow employers to assess and address the 13 psychosocial factors known to affect organizational health, the health of individual employees, and the financial bottom line. Developed by researchers from the Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction (CARMHA) within the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. Resources available at no cost.

  • Mental Health Commission of Canada. The website includes many resources, including A Leadership Framework for Advancing Workplace Mental Health.

  • National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.