Workplace depression is a significant and possibly growing problem, medical practitioners are saying. But at the same time they don't believe employers can shoulder the full burden of improving mental health in the office.

"It’s a difficult challenge for employers because, ultimately, they're going to have to address the issues of their own organization's culture," says Steve Horvath, president and CEO of the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

'Managers can play a role in encouraging people to seek help.'— Dr. Carolyn Dewa, head of the Work and Well-Being Research and Evaluation Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health 

At the same time, he says, "there's the other aspect of creating more resiliency in the workforce" in general.

In other words, with the pressures of home life, child care and maybe financial worries all playing a role, how do you teach people to deal with stress?

In a survey released Tuesday, polling company Ipsos-Reid found that 22 per cent of Canadian workers are experiencing depression, which is a similar percentage to what earlier studies have found in the population at large.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the symptoms can include feelings of sadness, worthlessness, impatience and loss of interest or pleasure in typically enjoyable activity, as well as appetite and weight.

These changes in mood inevitably affect an individual's attitude to family, social settings and work.

The survey, which was commissioned by the Great-West Life Centre for Mental Health in the Workplace, revealed that 84 per cent of employers and managers say they believe it is part of their job to intervene when they feel an employee is exhibiting signs of depression.

But 63 per cent also said they would like to have more training to deal with employees who have depression.

Tracking workplace depression

Dr. Karen Cohen, CEO of the Canadian Psychological Association, acknowledges that while "there’s no clinical diagnosis of workplace depression," office life certainly presents its own stresses.

These can include everything from poor leadership and a hostile work environment to an inability to strike a comfortable work-life balance.

Dr. Carolyn Dewa, head of the work and well-being research and evaluation program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), says workplace depression came into sharper focus in the early 1990s, when insurance companies and employers began to see a rise in disability claims related to stress.

An April 2012 report by the Mental Health Commission of Canada said that mental health problems account for about 30 per cent of short‐ and long‐term disability claims.

The same report claimed that in 2010, mental health conditions accounted for 47 per cent of all approved disability claims in the Canadian civil service — nearly double the percentage of 20 years earlier.

Dewa says the rise in claims doesn’t mean that the modern workforce is more toxic.

"The prevalence of depression among the population hasn’t really changed over the years, but maybe some of the stigma has decreased, so people are more willing to talk about it," she says.

Economic costs

It is estimated that between compensation to sick workers and lost productivity, mental health issues cost the Canadian economy $50 billion a year.

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Mental health issues among workers costs the Canadian economy $50 billion a year. (iStock)

Towers Watson, a professional services company based in the U.S., produces a biannual report on workplace health that details what Canadian companies are doing to manage both physical and mental health issues among their employees.

The strategies include training managers to identify and reach out to depressive workers, and offering financial incentives for employees to improve their physical and mental well-being, which can include gym passes or a nominal payment to undergo a wellness assessment.

"The first thing is to have a culture of health, including mental health,' says Julia Holden, health and productivity leader in Towers Watson’s Toronto office.

But in her meetings with various companies, she says there was also "a recognition that employees are responsible for their own health."

Personal responsibility

One in five Canadian workers may be depressed, but the CPA's Dr. Cohen contrasts that number with a long-running statistic that says one in five Canadians — working or unemployed — will experience depression in any given year.

She says feelings of despair in the office cannot be separated from a person’s larger psychological profile.

"Depression is depression is depression," she says. "It has a variety of determinants, some are biological, some are psychological, some are social and they all combine in certain ways."

Horvath says it is important to remember that just because you're depressed at the office, doesn’t mean the office is what's making you depressed.

"People are not only stressed out over their own jobs, but also the fact that when they go home they might have children that are still at home, they may have elder care issues as well," says Horvath. "These things get brought back into the workforce."

Cohen says there needs to be an acknowledgement that companies can’t be solely accountable for their employees' mental health.

"I think there’s a collective responsibility," she says.

For employees, the key is to "match our expectations to the environment," says Cohen.

"So let's say you go into a workplace environment and you say, 'You know what, my boss should do this,' and that's the only thing you're holding on to to solve that problem. Likely it's not going to be a productive coping strategy, because we can’t make people do things," she says.

Perhaps the most beneficial thing an employer can do is direct a psychologically ill worker to treatment, says Dewa.

"We know that if people get intervention and earlier treatment, that the symptoms won’t be as severe. Managers can play a role in encouraging people to seek help," she says.

Dewa says employers should also strive to reassure workers that taking a stress leave won't have negative repercussions, so that when they "take time off to get that help, that they don't feel that they're jeopardizing their jobs."