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Workplace blues lead to billions of dollars in lost productivity

Tony Kahmann

Depression may not often come with the expensive treatments and procedures tied to medical conditions like cancer or serious accidents, but it’s costing American companies between $36.6 and $51.5 billion every year in lost productivity, according to various studies.

It’s a loss that some researchers would like to see minimized, and they’re coming up with programs that could help.

The most recent is the ongoing Work and Health Initiative led by Tufts Medical Center, which provides treatment through the workplace to those who show signs of lost productivity caused by depression. It also provides employers with an idea of the cost of untreated depression among their work force and resources for combating it.

“The cost to employers is hidden,” said Greg Simon of Seattle-based Group Health Research Institute. “Depression is associated with a lot of missed work and disability, and it’s often not identified as from depression. People who are depressed call in sick a lot, though they don’t call in depressed – they call in sick.”

Simon co-authored a precursor to the Work and Health Initiative in 2007.

He and a group of researchers studied 604 clinically depressed people in their workplaces. After a screening test identified their depression, half were advised to seek care from their usual provider, and the other half were given their choice of over-the-phone psychotherapy, in-person psychotherapy and anti-depressant medication.

After a year, those offered immediate care were 40 percent more likely to have recovered from their depression. They were also 70 percent more likely to have stayed employed, and they worked an average of two hours more per week than those who were simply advised to seek help.

The study’s authors estimated the value of those two hours at $1,800 per employee per year and the cost of the intervention program at $100 to $400.

Simon said a depressed person can lose 15 to 20 percent of productive time (including sick days and days when the worker is present but not productive), but employers aren’t spending much on depression treatment at all right now.

“If people were to spend more on good quality depression treatment, … we believe that the productivity increase would be more than enough to outweigh that cost,” he said.

Tony Kahmann of Waldo Agencies in Meridian works with companies to pinpoint and combat risks that affect profitability, and he sees depression as a major threat to that bottom line.

He agreed that it’s hard for employers to identify depression as a specific financial burden, even if they spend time collecting data on health costs.

“They’re looking for big-ticket items that have the largest impact from a financial standpoint,” he said. “Depression, instead of being the arteries is more like the capillaries, but its impact is still significant because it impacts productivity. It does not show up as being a large cost in terms of large claims; the cost is manifest more in the loss of productivity or absenteeism.”

“Particularly with labor costs in the U.S., employers can use all the help they can get in increasing productivity,” he added. “It’s really hard to compete with overseas.”

Kahmann said he believes most employers genuinely care about their employees, but even if they didn’t, taking steps to combat the effects of depression would be a smart thing to do.

“But for many, it’s kind of like fuzzy math for them,” he said. “Health and productivity management is just not in their vernacular – they haven’t been exposed to it. … As a discipline, it’s only been around for maybe 10 years or more, and it’s only come into real popularity with larger firms, like the Fortune 500. Get below Fortune 500 in size, and it’s not very commonly understood.”

The Work and Health Initiative aims to change that. Large companies are invited to sign up to bring the program to their employees.

To begin, participants complete an online health screening exam, which when finished provides information about seeking help for depression. If the person is over 45 (this particular study is focused on determining the program’s effectiveness with middle-aged and older workers, who may have additional health problems) and has symptoms of depression and productivity impairment, he or she is invited to participate in the WHI treatment trial.

Those selected to be in the trial are educated about depression and its impact on functionality at work. Their depression is be monitored, with results shared with the subjects’ physicians. Counselors work with subjects to identify barriers to productivity and work-specific solutions to those problems.

The WHI treated group will later be compared with a control group that did not receive treatment through the initiative.

The initiative is open for employers and employees to sign up through the end of 2012.

To Learn More: Want to learn more about this free study and how the results can help your organization? Contact Dr. Debra Lerner at dlerner@tuftsmedicalcenter.org or (617) 636-8640. You can also locally contact Tony Kahmann at Waldo Agencies (208) 405-5820 or e-mail him at tkahmann@waldoagencies.com. Waldo Agencies will be scheduling an informational webcast, during which Lerner, the principal investigator for the study and senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Research and Health Policy Studies at Tufts University, will provide a study overview and field questions.

About Dani Grigg