Stories

The impact of depression in the workplace

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Their stories are hiding in plain sight.

One senior leader with a healthcare organization said she was unable to work for more than six months.1 Another said medication helped, but she still found that showing up at the office sometimes seemed “close to impossible.”2 There was the co-founder of a technology company who eventually stepped down from his role as CEO. His condition had become so serious and debilitating that he needed to be hospitalized.3 And one state lawmaker was encouraged to step down from her position after sharing her own experience with mental illness.

Most people know someone who’s struggling with major depressive disorder (MDD), a medical condition that by one recent estimate affects 21 million American adults.4 What is not always as visible is the impact of depression on the workplace. Working professionals across a variety of roles and industries are dealing with MDD, and that’s taking a toll on employers as well as the U.S. economy.

Research on the prevalence of mental health disorders in the workforce shows what’s at stake, and what’s been improving, for U.S. employers.

 

Understanding the burden

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, MDD is more than sadness or a bad mood. It lasts for a period of at least two weeks and often includes loss of interest in daily activities and lack of motivation. People with MDD regularly have trouble sleeping, eating, and concentrating, and their symptoms can interfere with nearly every aspect of their life, including their ability to work.5

A 2021 study published in the journal PharmacoEconomics estimated that the economic burden of adults with depression tops $326 billion annually.7 While that report found that some of this cost was related to expenditures for MDD treatment, more than 60 percent (close to $200 billion) of the overall yearly cost could be attributed to workplace absenteeism and reduced productivity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also estimates that depression in the workplace now accounts for 12 billion lost working days per year, at a cost to the global economy of $1 trillion annually, according to a 2022 report. 11

Noting that work losses not only affect individuals but also have “wider societal costs through increased unemployment, lost productivity, loss of skilled labor and reduced tax revenue,” the WHO advised the world’s work stakeholders to act immediately to help right the ship. According to the agency, governments that address mental health in the workplace are better positioned to help reduce healthcare costs and welfare expenditures, as well as benefit from greater participation in the labor market and higher productivity.

 

Supporting Employees with Depression

The WHO suggests several general strategies that organizations can use to address MDD, burnout and related mental health conditions in the workplace. Companies, for example, can implement training programs that not only focus on prevention, but improve mental health awareness and appropriate interventions. And similarly, workers with depression should be supported with the resources they need to get help and continue working.

All signs indicate U.S. employers are starting to see the value in making such accommodations. A recent Harvard Business Review piece noted that while most companies have yet to achieve “true culture change” around employee mental health, they’re “finally investing more in mental health support out of necessity."12 And a 2022 poll by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 71 percent of workers think their employer is more concerned about mental health in the workplace than they were in the past.13

“Workers appreciate and seek mental health support in the workplace,” the APA stated in the report it released with its survey results. Moving forward, the organization advised employers would be wise to keep this in mind.

Biogen has put strong global focus on mental health and well-being as reflected in our benefit programs, which include a range of digital, virtual, in-person, and hospital-based resources designed to meet employees and their families where they are, whether they seek to maintain resilience or address depression and other behavioral health needs. Learn about Biogen’s work to advance research in depression.

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