People First HR Services

Employers need to recognize, respond to staff depression

Colleen Coates

In a recent workplace survey, 56 per cent of Canadian employers identified mental-health claims as their top health and productivity-related issue, yet only 32 per cent said they are likely to implement programs to address the issue. A mere five per cent indicated they planned to tackle the stigma associated with anxiety and depression in the workplace.

According to the World Health Organization, depression will rank second only to heart disease as the leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. This sombre statistic is echoed by the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba, which reports that depression contributes to 155 million lost working days per year, accounting for 20 per cent of all sickness absence at work. It takes a huge bite out of the Canadian economy as well, with annual losses due to mental illness calculated to be near $33 billion — making depression the fastest-growing category of disability costs to employers.

The triggers for depression are not surprising, as having to constantly perform under the burden of repetitive work, bullying and harassment, lack of job security, an excessive workload or poor conditions will eventually overwhelm even the most resolute employee. And while we all experience periods of sadness, frustration or discouragement, it is the person with persistent depression, said to be as many as one in 20 employees at any given time, who requires their employer’s attention.

Although no two people will experience depression the same way, employers should intervene when someone is suddenly withdrawn, irritable or otherwise exhibiting signs of hopelessness and despair, chronic fatigue or substance abuse. Their productivity may also be in noticeable decline, ranging from an inability to concentrate and make decisions to frequent lateness and absenteeism. Having a lack of enthusiasm for work can manifest itself in serious business errors and even dangerous workplace accidents, putting all employees at risk.

The good news is that the Canadian Mental Health Association reports that 80 per cent of people with depression can recover if they seek help. This is why it is vital for employers and employees to take care and be mindful of one another — and not to be fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing.

If you believe a colleague is experiencing depression, you have an obligation to respond. Respectfully speak to them about the problem and encourage them to seek treatment or to consult the professional in charge of your organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefit program, who can guide them to finding a trained health professional.

The Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba lists a number of preventative measures that managers and employers can take for curbing depression in the workplace:

Reduce possible triggers by educating employees. Make staff aware of the signs of depression so that they are able to recognize changes in their closest co-workers.

Provide a proactive work environment. Invite everyone to suggest ways their work environment, practices and processes can be improved for the benefit of all.

Support communication to resolve stressful situations. Rather than expecting employees to “tough it out or suck it up,” assure that they know who they can speak to discreetly and dependably about conflicts as they arise.

Promote healthy lifestyles. Encourage employees to have an active, healthy work-life balance, which can be supported by proactively providing healthy snack alternatives, physical activity incentives, opportunities for social interaction and deterring harmful conduct such as presenteeism (coming to work despite having a sickness that justifies an absence).

Be alert to potential discriminatory workplace relationships. In addition to enforcing an anti-harassment policy, monitor situations where one employee may wield unfair power or influence over another.

Encourage people to seek help and advice. Use the trust between you and your employees to direct them toward seeking appropriate treatment, including EAP counselling, self-help groups, family and peer support or mental health specialists.

Accept depression as an illness, not a personal weakness. It is important to remember that depression is as much of an illness as diabetes or heart disease and can impact any employee regardless of age, sex or position within the company.

Employers cannot afford to ignore the signs of depression or any other mental-health issue in their employees. In a close working environment where people rely on one another for on-the-job satisfaction, safety and support, doing nothing is simply not an option.

— With reporting by Barbara Chabai

Colleen Coates, CHRP, CCP, is a practice leader with People First HR Services Ltd. She can be contacted at


Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba:

Canadian Mental Health Association:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2011 H2