man holding unhappy face

Any employer who thinks depression is a mental health condition that employees will only grapple with in private should think again.

That’s because depression—a condition often felt more acutely in the post-holiday, light-deprived days of winter— can have a huge impact on a staffer’s performance, not to mention overall workplace engagement and even a company’s bottom-line. Complicating matters further is the fact that most business owners or managers are ill-equipped to understand, manage and mitigate depression’s full impact.

According to a recent Ipsos-Reid poll, a stunning 22% of Canadian employees say they currently suffer from depression. An April 2012 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that mental health problems account for 30% of short- and long-term disability claims, while a report released last year by Public Health Ontario noted that depression has a far greater impact on the quality of life of sufferers than even cancer.

Perhaps most shocking, researchers estimate that mental health issues cost the Canadian economy $50 billion a year.

Read: 22% of Employees Suffer From Depression

So widespread is the impact of mental illness that the Mental Health Commission and Canadian Standards Association recently released a national standard to help employers build and sustain psychologically healthy and safe workplaces.

Put simply, depression can present difficult hurdles for business owners, managers and HR professionals and often leads to costly employment law issues. The illness can render workers unable to satisfy the demands of their jobs, while others experience punctuality and attendance issues because of difficulties with motivation and sleep.

Left unaddressed, depression’s impact on performance can result in disciplinary or firing decisions by an employer, who may then be deemed in violation of provincial human rights legislation for failing to accommodate a person with a disability. This is an unfortunately common side effect of depression because ill employees often fail to discuss their condition with employers–either as a result of the stigma associated with mental health problems or because those dealing with it may not be aware of its effects on their personality or performance.

Of course, the potential financial impact of depression on a company doesn’t end there. When not properly managed, the condition can sabotage workplace morale as other employees may come to resent the absences of a depressed colleague whose work is left for them to manage, or whose seemingly disengaged behaviour becomes an issue. Then there are the increased disability costs that an employer must absorb when an employee misses work or requires treatment.

These reasons explain why business owners and managers need to know how to identify signs of depression in their employees, which according to the Canadian Mental Health Association can also include the inability to make decisions, poor concentration, increased job errors and an increase in workplace accidents. Being aware of depression’s impact is especially important in occupations in which employees are asked to perform safety-sensitive or potentially dangerous work. In that context, employers may have to initiate an accommodation process and ask for medical confirmation that the worker is mentally or physically capable of safely performing required duties.

Although depression’s effects can be as debilitating on an entire workplace as they are on the individual sufferer, employers who act thoughtfully can mitigate its business impact and help the ill employee effectively manage their condition. Here’s how:

Encourage open communication: Ensure that a depressed employee feels comfortable bringing up his or her illness to management. Many employees fear they’ll be dismissed or stigmatized if they mention their illness to an employer. Building a culture that emphasizes employee health and well-being—a definition that should include mental health—is a positive first step to ensuring open communication.

Ensure that management is equipped to recognize depression in the workplace: According to the Ipsos-Reid poll, only one in three managers has training in mental health intervention. Depression is best treated early to reduce its impact on the individual and their workplace. If managers are able to intervene quickly, the employee may be able to get back sooner to being a productive worker.

Be mindful of accommodation obligations: Special attention and effort is required when accommodating employees suffering from depression because they may not be able to recognize how their symptoms are impacting their workplace performance. Employers should consult an employment lawyer to determine how to meet their accommodation obligations as required by human rights legislation.

Introduce supports such as an Employee Assistance Program: Often included in employee group benefits, these programs offer mental health services such as confidential and anonymous 24/7 hotline support for care-needing employees staffed by professionally trained counsellors. The newly-released mental health standards—available free from the Canadian Standards Association—also provide guidance to employers on effectively managing issues related to workplace mental health and should be made available to all managers.

Don’t forget about work-life balance: Encourage employees to take their allotted vacation each year, which is time intended to allow employees to relax and recharge. Also, focus on maintaining appropriate staff levels and reasonable work hours—a challenge for sure, but a necessity given that research shows burnout and exhaustion are major drivers of depression.

Know your limits: Understand that there’s only so much you can do as an employer to help a depressed employee. Depression is a serious mental health illness that requires professional treatment and management. So act quickly to help the employee obtain the necessary level of care—while also protecting your workplace culture.

Laura Williams is an employment lawyer and founder of Williams HR Law in Markham, Ont. She has more than 15 years experience providing proactive solutions to employers aimed at reducing workplace exposures to liability and costs that result from ineffective and non-compliant workplace practices.

More columns by Laura Williams

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