The Next Big Workplace Safety Issue … Depression?

I grew up with a dad from the “Great Generation” who had survived WWII, Korea and Stalag 17.  He and my mom built a pretty impressive business by their hard work.  Not surprisingly, I grew up with that wonderful middle class attitude of “lace up your boots, quit whining, and deal with your problems.”


So I guess that it is not surprising that I once considered people who complained of depression or midlife crisis, or sought counseling and medication, to be less tough or not up to the task.  I was wrong.


Everyday I am thankful for the values of hard work, discipline, decency and entrepreneurship my parents modeled for me.  The thing is . . . they weren’t perfect.  They had their flaws, frustrations, anger and other challenges.  They were real people facing the same pressures we face in our workplaces.


My dad dealt with the understandable stress of starting businesses.  I can’t even imagine how he muscled through the memories of two wars, POW, and the travails of the Great Depression.


He didn’t have access to EAP’s or the luxury of a sabbatical.  Medications?  Counseling?  In a small town?  And yet, at his funeral, it was as if one had stepped into Jimmy Stewart’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.”  I’ll never equal his legacy to so many people.  However, he also died at the young age of 64.  I don’t know if he faced depression or other problems, but it would have been understandable if he did.  And he was a damned remarkable guy.


My point is that Workplace Depression is a contributing factor to so many of our workplace problems, but now there is help for struggling workers that dad’s generation never thought about. 


We must deal with this challenge, and as a first step, we should not stigmatize our coworkers who deal with depression, anxiety and similar challenges.  We’re talking about illness.  Second, we should recognize that while plenty of workers may be unhappy and feel depressed, we’re talking about a more serious matter, and one that may be related to non work activities or physiological issues … but the effects are at work. And work may also be a problem.  As I type this blog, I see a new post on EHS Today: “Study Finds Link Between Negative Working Conditions and Depression.”


How costly is depression to the workplace?


One study reported in EHS Today on July 12, 2002 that one of every 40 workers were affected by depression.  That same year, a Harvard Medical School study concluded that depression results in more than 200 million lost work days and costs the U.S. economy $43.7 billion annually.  After the last six stressful years, care to guess the current costs?


EHS Today reported on August 5, 2013 that an August 2013 Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that employees who worked long hours (at least 60 hours per week) and high job demands (defined as “usually” having too much work) were at higher risk of depression.


The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM) concluded:


  • Only about 1/2 of depressed workers are receiving any treatment, and fewer than 1/2 of those individuals receive care consistent with current treatment guidelines.
  • Depression tends to strike workers earlier than other chronic diseases and may affect productivity for a longer period.
  • Workplace productivity is harmed, absenteeism increases, unemployment goes up, and depression can introduce disruptive effects in the work organization.
  • Health and disability costs go up for a variety of reasons.  Imagine the effect on workers comp costs?

Action Points


  • Many of us are employers and leaders, and we have a fiduciary responsibility to our businesses to develop the next generation of leaders to do better than did we with regard to workplace balance and mental health.
  • For those of you who may be dealing with some form of depression, anxiety or related condition, seek professional assistance.  If a Neanderthal like me thinks that it’s the “manly” (or “womanly”) thing to do, than I would suggest that your manhood is safe. 
  • Incorporate balance and mental health topics into your Workplace Wellness efforts.  I saw another recent post, “Five Strategies For Dealing With Workplace Depression.”  Information abounds.  I especially liked that post’s lead in:

Although workplace depression may seem like a topic to be avoided at all costs (after all, personal problems don’t belong at work, right?) the facts are startling. Depression affects more than 19 million American adults and costs companies $12 billion in lost work and $11 billion in decreased productivity. And since 80 percent of people suffering from depression can be helped and recover, it is definitely worth an employer or manager’s time to help a depressed employee.


  • Just as I recently blogged about the need to incorporate the risks of “Fatigue” and “Distraction” into your safety efforts, consider the effects of depression or other related problems.
  • Notwithstanding my commitment to help those struggling with depression, DO NOT treat performance problems as mental or emotional issues.  Focus on the neutral performance or attitude issues.
  • Beware of characterization of  workplace problems as “disability conditions.”  My Irvine partner Jim McDonald has written extensively about the expansion in the definitions of mental disabilities under the new DSM-V.  Know the ADA.

About mavity2012

I am a Senior Partner operating out of the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, one of the Nation’s oldest and largest management employment and labor firms. My practice is national and keeps me on the road or in one of our 28 offices about 50 percent of the time. I created and co-chair the Firm's Workplace Safety and Catastrophe Management Practice Group. I have almost 29 years of experience as a labor lawyer, but rely even more heavily on the experience I gained in working in my family's various businesses, and through dealing with practical client issues. Employers tell me that they seldom meet an attorney who delivers on his promise to provide practical guidance and to be a business partner. As a result, some executives probably use different terms than “practical” to describe my fellow travelers in the profession. I don't enjoy the luxury of being impractical because I spend much of my time on shop floors and construction sites dealing with safety, union and related issues which are driven by real world processes and the need to protect and get the most out of one's most important business assets ... its employees. That's one of the reasons that I view safety compliance as a way to also manage problem employees, reduce litigation and develop the type of work environment that makes unions unnecessary. Starting out dealing with union-management challenges and a stint in the NLRB have better equipped me to see the interrelationship of legal and workplace factors. I am proud also of my experience at Fisher & Phillips, where providing “practical advice” is second only to legal excellence among the Firm’s values. Our website lists me as having provided counsel for over 225 occasions of union activity, guided unionized companies, and as having managed approximately 450 OSHA fatality cases in construction and general industry, ranging from dust explosions to building collapses, in virtually every state. I have coordinated complex inspections involving multi-employer sites, corporate-wide compliance, and issues involving criminal referral. As a full labor lawyer, I oversee audits of corporate labor, HR, and safety compliance. I have responded to virtually every type of day-to-day workplace inquiry, and have handled cases before the EEOC, OFCCP, NLRB, and numerous other state and federal agencies. At F & P, all of us seek to spot issues and then rely upon attorneys in the Firm who concentrate on those areas. No tunnel vision. I teach or speak around 50 times per year to business associations, bar and professional groups, and to individual businesses. I serve on safety committees at three states’ AGC Chapters, teach at the AGC ASMTC
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