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Depression in the workplace remains problematic, costs employers billions

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Depression among workers is costing U.S. employers billions, but few companies have devised strategies for effectively reducing the financial and operational effects of depressive illness.

While depression and other mental illnesses are covered under the vast majority of corporate health care plans, the stigma associated with the conditions deters many employees from seeking help because they fear losing their jobs. Employers can take proactive steps to reassure employees that help is available if they need it, but they must also be wary of potential discrimination litigation that can arise when employees seek special accommodations for depression or other mental disorders.

Employers incur an estimated $100 billion annually in direct and indirect costs associated with depression, including as much as $44 billion lost to employee absences and lower productivity, according to a survey published last month by Employers Health Coalition Inc., a Canton, Ohio-based not-for-profit health benefits service provider. “It's one of those situations where there's been a lot of talk about how no one's talking about it,” said Marcas Miles, a Canton-based senior director at Employers Health Coalition. “Employers recognize and will admit it's an important topic, but it's only recently that they've begun to step up and decide that it's time for them to take action.”

Most employers already provide coverage for mental health care under their group benefit plans, as well as access to professional counseling and other resources through employee assistance programs. However, recent studies indicate that — with the exception of prescription anti-depressant medications — benefits and services aimed at preventing or reducing depression in the workplace are underutilized by employees, which experts say is typically due to a prevailing stigmatization of mental illness in the U.S. that discourages employees from admitting struggles.

“Fundamentally, I think a lot of people still don't want someone with depression or any other mental disorder working next to them,” Mr. Miles said. “They don't know how to interact with it.”

Another reason for employees' reluctance to take advantage of the counseling and other mental health services provided through benefits programs — often at no charge to the employee — is the fear that using those services will ultimately harm their career, even though employers are legally barred from adverse actions against workers based on personal health or genetic information.

“It's not unusual for me to have employees resist openness in dealing with mental health issues, because they see it possibly as something that could inhibit their professional development or even negatively impact their ability to retain security clearances,” said Violet Vernon, employee benefits manager at Aerojet Rocketdyne Inc., a Sacramento, California-based aerospace and defense manufacturer. “We put a lot of effort into making sure our employees are assured that the program communications are between them and the providers, and that the information never gets back to us.”

When employees do reveal to employers that they are facing mental health issues, employers must act with care if employees seek special considerations due to the disorders. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and comparable state laws, employees claiming to suffer from depression and other mental illnesses would likely qualify for nondiscrimination protection and reasonable accommodations if the condition has been verified by a physician.

Unfortunately, experts say many employers view the laws' lack of rigid protection qualifications for mental illnesses as an invitation for abuse on the part of employees, particularly if they might otherwise be subjected to disciplinary action. That tension, experts say, has helped fuel a 56% rise in depression-based workplace discrimination claims filed with U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission from 2003 to 2013.

“The risk of litigation is certainly greater today than it was 10 years ago, so it's important that employers get this right,” said Ellen McLaughlin, Chicago-based partner at Seyfarth Shaw L.L.P.

“One of the biggest things you can do is provide opportunities for discussion and protocol training for human resources professionals and the front-line managers,” said Dean Rocco, a Los Angeles-based partner at Wilson Elser Moskowitz Edelman & Dicker L.L.P. “That way there's a clear and proper response when an employee lets a supervisor know that they're having an issue with depression or mental health.”