is a mental illness characterized by feelings of profound sadness and lack of interest in enjoyable activities. It may cause a wide range of symptoms, both physical and emotional. Depression is not the same as a blue mood, nor is it a personal weakness; it is a major, but treatable illness. Depression can last for weeks, months, or years. People with depression may recover without treatment. However, the longer depression lasts and the more times it recurs, the more likely it is that treatment will prove necessary.
The precise cause of depression is not known. Causes may be genetic, mental, physical, or environmental, including:
- Stressful life events (usually in combination with one or more of the following causes)
- Chronic stress
- Low self-esteem
- Imbalances in brain chemicals and hormones
- Lack of control over circumstances (helplessness and hopelessness)
- Negative thought patterns and beliefs
- Chronic pain
- Heart disease
and heart surgery
Symptoms of depression are highly variable from person to person. Some people have only a few symptoms, while others have many. Symptoms may also vary over time. In the workplace, symptoms of depression often may be recognized by:
- Decreased productivity
- Morale problems
- Lack of cooperation
- Safety risks, accidents
- Frequent statements about being tired all the time
- Problems with concentration
- Complaints of unexplained aches and pains
Treatment of depression usually includes medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. The medications help relieve symptoms, while psychotherapy helps employees learn more effective ways of dealing with problems or identifying and resolving the conflicts contributing to their depression.
Clinical depression can be treated successfully. The key to recovery is that symptoms are recognized early and that employees get the treatment they need. Many companies are helping their employees with depression by providing training on depressive illnesses for supervisors, access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), and access to occupational health personnel. Such efforts may contribute to significant reductions in lost time and job-related accidents as well as marked increases in productivity.
Here is what you can do:
- Learn about depression and the sources of help that are available.
- Recognize when an employee shows signs of a problem affecting performance that may be depression-related and refer employees appropriately.
- Discuss changes in work performance with the employee. You may suggest that the employee seek professional help if there are personal concerns. Assure the employee that all conversations will be kept in the strictest confidence.
If an employee voluntarily talks with you about her health problems, including feeling depressed or down all the time, keep these points in mind:
- Do not try to diagnose the problem yourself.
- Recommend that any employee experiencing symptoms of depression seek professional help from and employee assistance program (EAP) counselor or other health or mental health professional.
- Recognize that a depressed employee may need a flexible work schedule during treatment. Find out about your company’s policy by contacting your human resources specialist.
- Remember that severe depression may be life-threatening to the employee. If an employee makes comments that sound as if he may be considering suicide, take the threats very seriously. Call an EAP counselor or other specialist immediately and seek advice on how to handle the situation.
- While depressed persons are at much greater risk of harming themselves than others, take any threats against others very seriously and seek professional advice quickly. This is particularly true if a threat involves a family member since spouses and children are among the most common homicide victims of depressed individuals.
Successful treatment of depression enables people with the disease to return to satisfactory, functioning lives, and nearly everyone who undergoes treatment gets some degree of relief. With early recognition, intervention, and support, most employees can overcome their depression and pick up their lives and careers where they left off.
Depression in the workplace. National Mental Health Association website. Available at:
http://www.nmha.org/. Accessed June 11, 2003.
The effects of depression in the workplace. National Institute of Mental Health website. Available at:
http://www.nimh.nih.gov/. Accessed June 11, 2003.
Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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