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Battling Workplace Depression


The main cause of workplace depression has surprisingly little to do with job duties and workplace pressure.

Workplace depression ranks among the top three problems encountered by employee assistance professionals, second only to family crisis and stress. According to Mental Health America, it is as costly as heart disease or AIDS to the US economy, costing over $51 billion in lost productivity from workplace absenteeism and $26 billion in direct treatment costs. However, the main cause of workplace depression has surprisingly little to do with job duties and workplace pressure.

Great Danes

A Danish study attempted to identify the root cause of workplace depression by interviewing 4,500 public employees. Researchers found that a heavy workload has no effect on whether or not employees become depressed. On the other hand, work environment and personal relationships – especially the feeling of being treated unfairly by management – has the greatest effect on an employee’s mood.

Under Pressure

It’s no secret that an employee’s relationship with their manager is a top driver of engagement, and modern managers in the US are notoriously undertrained and underappreciated. A lack recognition and respect in the workplace debilitates worker productivity and personal well-being, and can fester into something much unhealthier if left unchecked. It’s why employees leave bosses, not jobs. But people still tend to intuitively associate work pressure with depression, and that’s a mistake, says the lead researcher behind the study, psychologist Matias Brødsgaard Grynderup, PhD, of the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University:

“It is not because a heavy workload increases the risk of depression,” he elaborates. “Instead, depression can make work assignments appear insurmountable, even though the depression was not caused by the workload. This suggests that the risk of workplace depression cannot be minimized by changing the workload. Other factors are involved, and it is these factors that we should focus on in the future.”

Dr. Grynderup insinuates what we already know – that managers must constantly work to appreciate and value employees, and they must do it in a meaningful way.

Employee Myths

Frederic Laloux has spent a lot of time thinking about how to make workplaces happier and healthier, in fact, he wrote a book about it called Reinventing Organizations. He argues that the reason we are experiencing such an emotional gulf between workers and management is because many companies are holding on to a “classic organization model” that enshrines unskilled managers and perpetuates the following dangerous myths about the work ethos of employees:

  • Workers are lazy. If they are not watched, they will not work diligently.
  • Workers need to be told what to do, when to do it, and how to do it. Bosses need to hold them accountable.
  • Workers put their own interests ahead of what is best for the organization. They are selfish.
  • Workers work primarily for money. They will do what it takes to make as much money as possible.
  • Workers are like interchangeable parts of machines. One “good” worker is pretty much the same as any other “good” worker.
  • Workers are not capable of making good decisions that affect the economic performance of the company. Only bosses are good at making these decisions.
  • Workers do not want to be responsible for their actions or for decisions that affect the performance of the company.

Laloux claims that classic organizational models and the old way of thinking are hitting their limits and cannot move at the pace of business today. We tend to agree. Workers are not naturally lazy or unaccountable – that’s a lazy judgment in itself. If you look at the evidence, one is more likely to surmise that a lot of managers simply miss the mark when it comes to treating employees like people.

Lower the Risk

The only thing that’s certain is people are much more likely to leave their jobs for feeling unappreciated than a heavy workload. A heavy workload can actually result in feelings of pride and accomplishment when an employee is properly motivated, recognized, and rewarded. When a manager treats an employee poorly, there are no two ways about it. Everyone should be on the lookout for the warning signs of workplace depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Sleeping too little, or sleeping too much
  • Reduced/increased appetite or weight loss
  • Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
  • Persistent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment

If you think one of your employees may be depressed, don’t hesitate to intervene and find out what’s wrong. It can be awkward to broach, but that’s a big reason many cases of workplace depression go unreported. It’s a wellness issue just as much as it is an engagement issue, and may require medical treatment, so the worst thing you can do is nothing. Dr. Grynderup and his team of Danish researchers suggest minimizing the risk by having “a management style in which there is a clearly expressed wish to treat employees properly.” We couldn’t have said it better.