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The death of actor Robin Williams, who authorities say committed suicide, tragically brings into focus a daily issue for many people: depression. Mr. Williams, who reportedly took his own life after suffering from severe depression, was one of millions of people in the U.S. dealing with the disorder.
According to federal government statistics, about 10% of the population age 12 and over take antidepressant medication, which means that all but the smallest employers almost certainly have workers diagnosed with depression.
Some experts dispute whether the rate of antidepressant prescriptions reflects actual rates of depression — often the medications are prescribed by family doctors who may not have the clinical background to accurately diagnose depression — but clearly there are millions of people who have some symptoms of the disorder. And the prescription rates obviously don't reflect the unknown number living with depression who don't seek medical help.
For employers, it is a tough issue to deal with. Depression is often linked with increased rates of absenteeism and presenteeism. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the disorder results in 200 million lost workdays a year, costing employers up to $44 billion annually.
Fortunately, there are many drugs on the market to help people cope with depression, and antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed medications in the United States. But that also means the disorder is costing employers additional billions through health plan costs.
Despite the prevalence of the issue and the harsh economics, it is also an intensely private matter. Aside from privacy rules that prevent employers from directly intervening, employees often are reluctant to acknowledge they might have mental health conditions. Companies may set up high-quality employee assistance programs to tackle the mental health concerns of their workers, but they are of little value if the employees who would benefit from them can't or won't take the first step to access the services.
As with all complex issues, there are no simple answers to the problem of depression in the workplace. Some first steps, however, would include recognizing that it is an issue in most workplaces, developing a sympathetic environment that encourages people to seek help, and training managers to recognize the problem.
From there, employers can go further and make changes to their workplace policies to create more flexible approaches. This can be as simple as allowing workers to take a series of short breaks rather than just one long lunch break and the designation of private spaces for people to use — or as detailed as changing work schedules to allow people to adapt their timetables to help their mental well-being.
Depression is a long-term concern for society as a whole, and employers have a crucial role to play in attempting to minimize its sometimes dreadful outcomes.