America's workforce is in crisis as a silent epidemic eats away at the U.S. economy through lost productivity and underperformance. More importantly, if this health crisis is left unchecked, it will cost lives.
It's not AIDS, cancer, or diabetes. It's clinical depression, and it continues to cost America's workforce even though it doesn't have to.
Among adults who have been employed in the last 12 months, more than 1 in 10 have missed work days because they were too anxious (14%) or too depressed (16%) to go to work, according to a September 2015 Harris Poll for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Depression affects 9.5% of the adult population and translates to 200 million lost workdays each year. That's 4 million lost days a week. The WHO estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of disability throughout the world.
The economic hit to employers and the U.S. economy is staggering. Each year, it's estimated that depression costs companies between $17 billion and $44 billion.
The real toll, however, is much more costly and distressing. People are suffering; and some will die. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America.
What makes this especially unsettling is that depression, once diagnosed, is treatable. Similar to physical illnesses, the earlier treatment can begin, the more effective it is. According to the National Institute of Health, up to 80% of those treated for depression show an improvement in their symptoms generally within four to six weeks of beginning medication, psychotherapy, attending support groups or a combination of these treatments.
Employers can look out for both their employees' short and long-term mental health by encouraging participation in free and anonymous online screenings like this one. By encouraging employees to take free, anonymous screenings, managers will also be sending an important signal that there's no stigma to depression. While the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from firing people with mental health conditions, a bias in the workplace remains. As a society, America shuns mental health issues as affecting only an unfortunate few. That's far from the case – depression alone affects 350 million people globally each year, according to the WHO. But as a result of the stigma, people with depression and other ailments have a legitimate fear of repercussions. If employers encourage mental health screenings, that could change.
Employers already readily promote workplace initiatives involving physical health, such as monetary incentives to join a health club or annual, on-site flu shots. The underlying motivator here is employee wellbeing — though there are also significant business benefits to a healthier, physically fit workforce. Just as businesses have embraced the notion of get-fit challenges in the workplace, they can increase their productivity (and profits) by encouraging mental health screenings throughout the year.
Through their HR department or employee assistance program (EAP), employers can educate employees about mental health by providing information on mental health and screenings through established communications channels and integrating mental health programming into current wellness programs. Reinforcing the anonymous nature of the screening helps increase participation. Employers cannot identify any individual that has taken a screening and all reporting is provided in aggregate. Ideally, employers want the screenings to engage employees to become active participants in their wellbeing and link them back to company or EAP resources.
Tomorrow, 548,000 Americans will call in sick or be impaired on the job because of depression. It doesn't have to be this way.