Donna Hardaker had just accepted a full-time position that she loved when a whiplash injury from a car accident thrust her into a deep depression.
That’s when everything changed for the worse.
“I was having insomnia and terribly low self-esteem. What people saw at work was I was irritable, angry, blaming people all the time. I was struggling with being able to remember things. I couldn’t remember verbal information, so it was really nerve-racking,” she said.
“People didn’t know what was going on, and instead, they got angry back at me.”
Her manager dealt with it by not speaking with her.
“Literally, the last year I worked there, she didn’t speak to me, so it was a very toxic work environment for me.”
She had a “really, really hard time” and eventually left her job.
Ms. Hardaker is not alone in having her career disrupted by depression.
Worry Adds to the Depression
In a recent national survey that studied 802 Canadian adults diagnosed with depression, about 70 percent said their symptoms at some point significantly disrupted their career. Thirty-five percent quit their job, 33 and 29 percent respectively took short- or long-term disability leave, and 25 percent lost their job.
The survey, conducted by Leger Marketing and sponsored by the Mood Disorders Society of Canada (MDSC), Wyeth Canada, and Shepell.fgi, also found that depression can greatly impede workplace productivity.
Working respondents said they spend an average of two hours daily on non-work-related activities when experiencing depression symptoms, while 42 percent said they left work early.
“There is a significant amount of information and understanding of the emotional damage and issues that depression entails. The fact is that there are [also] functional issues involved and people are unable to function at work and at home,” said MDSC’s national executive director Phil Upshall.
However, “with appropriate medical assistance, people can return not only to good emotional states but also good functional states,” he said.
Eighty-five percent of the patients surveyed said they were satisfied with their relationship with their physician.
But less than 40 percent said they thought their doctor really understood their underlying issues and criteria for diagnosis, including their ability to handle family responsibilities, function at work, and deal with personal relationships.
For those going to work with depression, 55 percent worried that their illness would be misconstrued as laziness or lack of interest and make them vulnerable to layoffs under the current economic environment.
“Of course the worries add significantly to the depression itself,” said Mr. Upshall, adding that the MDSC has recently published a very helpful brochure on depression that’s available on its website.
Manager-employee Relationship Is Key
Ms. Hardaker’s experience led her to a new career “to help prevent anybody else from going through what I did, and what my co-workers and manager went through.”
While her workshops are geared toward different groups of people in the workplace, including employees, union representatives, and human resources staff, the primary focus is managers.
According to research, “the relationship an employee has with their manager is the key to a successful outcome,” said Ms. Hardaker.
Her former situation in which her manager did not speak to her is what’s called “mobbing,” she said.
It’s a “group-think bullying” where “people in a position of influence model for everyone else what you do with a marginalized person. You indicate to the group that the person is not part of the group, which in itself is a huge risk factor for developing mental health problems because it causes such fear, confusion, sadness, and loss of connection to the group.”
Ms. Hardaker still sees her former group as “really, really good people. They just didn’t know what to do.”
“The nature of mental illness is not very well understood,” she said.
Meanwhile, the “huge stigma and discrimination” makes it almost impossible for people to seek help.
Look Beyond the Behaviour
Ms. Hardaker calls on workplaces to learn about the signs and symptoms of depression and to stay flexible to meet their employees’ needs and help them succeed.
If an employee does not seem to be behaving in their usual way, managers and co-workers must look beyond the surface to try to understand what is going on, she said.
What’s commonly seen is someone who was previously competent in their job suddenly seems unable to concentrate very well.
They may be irritable, experience fatigue, show a lack of interest, need more time to read, or have trouble remembering verbal instructions or meeting deadlines. They may also be agitated during meetings and may not be able to sit for long periods.
Instead of putting on labels such as “slacking off,” “weak,” dismissing the person, or taking a disciplinary approach, kindness and accommodation will go a long way toward helping the employee and benefiting the team and organization, said Ms. Hardaker.
It can begin with caring inquiries such as “you don’t seem like yourself,” “I miss your contribution at team meetings,” and “How can I help you?”
A manager can talk to the employee about what they need to be successful at their job. It might include providing support so they can meet deadlines, offering a flexible schedule, adjusting the way they do their work, or helping the employee find ways of expressing their need without becoming angry or irritable.
‘A level playing field’
It’s not about special treatment but adapting workplace processes to be accessible and inclusive of diversity, and to assist people by providing a level playing field, Ms. Hardaker said.
According to the CMHA , nearly three million Canadians will experience depression in their life, and one in 20 employees can experience depression at any one time.
Mr. Upshall noted that lost productivity from mental illness costs the Canadian economy an estimated $33 billion annually.
The good news is that “employers are starting to recognize that not only do they have a responsibility in this area, it’s good for their business to start to understand the consequences of mental illness, particularly depression,” Mr. Upshall said.
“A mental illness like depression is really no different than someone who has a heart attack and needs to take time off and needs to be able to return to work and engage in productive work, because they are trained and capable employees when they’re not ill,” he said.