Are You Contributing to Employee Depression?

A couple years ago, I learned of a shocking tragedy: The husband of a friend I had lost touch with ran into the woods near their home outside of Chicago, and stabbed himself to death. He was only in his mid-30s, had two young children, and no one knew he was suicidal. He was known as the kind of person who dependably follows through on all of his commitments—maybe too dependably.

The tragedy made me wonder whether it was this dependability, carried to an extreme degree, that contributed to his death. His job at a major bank appeared to be intense and stressful, and his personality appeared to be the type that would (literally) rather die than fail.

How demanding is your company, and how many employees do you have like this—slightly compulsive over-achievers, who need to succeed at all costs, and if they don’t, might decide killing themselves is a better option than failing?

I saw a post on the MarketWatch site last week that reminded me of the sad story of my old friend’s late husband. Reporter Kari Paul notes the link between stressful jobs and serious mental illness. She cites a newly released study by the journal, Lancet Psychiatry, that finds 14 percent of common mental illnesses could be prevented by reducing job strain. “The study, conducted by Australian mental health nonprofit Black Dog Institute, analyzed the ways work conditions may affect mental health among 6,870 employees. It found that people experiencing job strain at age 45 were at an increased risk of developing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety by age 50,” Paul writes.

When you hire new employees, do you think mental health screenings are a good idea, or even appropriate? It’s a hard question because, while you may want to protect employees from self-harm, you also don’t want to create a system that makes it hard for people who are successfully being treated for mental illness to find employment. You would have to be careful that the screenings didn’t demand, or exploit, an employee’s health history, such as having a record of being treated for mental illness. The screenings would have to take into consideration only whether the person currently seemed in a psychological state strong enough to withstand the demands of the job, rather than past history, or whether they are receiving help from therapy and medications. As long as they are determined to be in a strong place, how they got there, or what they experienced in the past, couldn’t be held against them.

Since creating such a system for psychological screenings would be very difficult for most companies, the focus could be on helping managers watch for warning signs, and helping them create a work environment that offers manageable, rather than overwhelming, workloads. How could you do that?

Many companies have sales and other departments that rely on financial and production goals as markers of success. Once you set such benchmarks to determine an employee’s worth, and eligibility for financial rewards, can you help but set the stage for a dangerous mental health dynamic? When the base pay is livable, there is less to worry about. If I were a Human Resources executive concerned for the psyches of my employees, the ones I would worry about would be those who can’t live off their salary without the additional earnings from commissions and bonuses. It could be argued that it’s not your responsibility, but a concerned company would ask itself: What happens if the employees with low base pay don’t make an adequate bonus or commission? Could they be thrown into a dangerous psychological state? Could their low morale spread throughout the company, creating a contagious depression? Managing employees in positions reliant on bonuses and commissions seems like a steep challenge.

The same can be true at companies, in which it’s part of the corporate culture to not take lunch breaks, and for employees to try to beat each other to the office in the morning, and stay latest in the evenings. What is the cost of encouraging such unhealthy competition among employees? In addition to mental illness, there is the risk of creating an environment that is only sustainable for one or two years, before employees can no longer take it and leave.

Hyper-stressful, competitive workplaces may be penny wise and pound foolish. You might—possibly—achieve short-term financial gains, but at the long-term expense of employee mental health and an inability to retain your workforce.

What steps, if any, do you take to create a workplace that pushes employees hard enough to satisfy business needs, but not so hard that mental health is adversely affected?


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