Depression affects 350 million people worldwide, and in the UK it is estimated that one in 10 of us will experience a depressive episode at some point in our lives. For employers, it is an increasingly important issue, since most of those suffering from depression (in Europe they make up around 87% of all those affected) are of working age.

While it may seem that the instances of depression have increased in modern times, there is little statistical evidence to support that view – mainly because it is impossible to distinguish between an increase in the instances of depression and an increase in reported cases because of a greater willingness among sufferers to seek help. 

Breaking the taboo

Until now, people suffering from depression have been reluctant to talk to their employers about it – because of a well-founded fear of stigma or discrimination. A recent report by Bupa, Breaking the silence, based on interviews with 50 business leaders and 500 employees with and without mental health conditions, found that one in five of the employees who had suffered mental health problems had been put under pressure to resign, and 51% believed they were less likely to be promoted as a result of their illness. Incredibly, all but three of the 50 business leaders questioned admitted that their organisation had an issue with mental health prejudice although the vast majority were attempting to address the problem.

In recent months there are signs that the taboo around mental health at work is lifting. However, while there is a greater willingness to discuss problems related to stress and anxiety, conversations about depression in the workplace remain difficult. 

Increasingly, employers are mobilising to address mental health at work, based on the recognition that early intervention and prevention is the most effective and cost-efficient approach. The most visible result has been an enormous increase in mindfulness and other stress-management programmes (see box, below). With the charity Mind recently condemning public spending on mental health as ‘unacceptably low’ (it is just 1.4% of the total health budget), investment by employers in education and preventative measures is undoubtedly welcome.

In October, the first European Business Leadership Forum to Target Depression in the Workplace was held in London. The forum – backed by senior executives from some of the world’s largest companies including BT, Barclays and Unilever – launched a business charter, setting out six principles of workplace best practice to reduce instances of depression among employees. At the launch event, former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell said: ‘This charter is an important step towards validating workplace policies and practice so we know what really works when supporting employees who are dealing with the effects of depression.’

This follows on from the City Mental Health Alliance, set up in 2013 to encourage employers and employees to talk about mental health issues more openly. Its goal is to ‘create an environment in the City where mental health is discussed in the same way as physical health’. KPMG is a founder member, and Deloitte and PwC have also signed up.

An expensive business

This new openness is partly a result of more liberal times but there is also hard business reasoning behind it. Depression is, to put it bluntly, expensive for employers. 

Bill Wilkerson, chairman of the Business Leadership Forum and executive chairman of Mental Health International, hit the nail on the head when he wrote in a foreword to a Business Leadership Forum report: ‘Depression is… the principal source of workplace disability, attacking the individual’s ability to concentrate and work productively. Today’s brain-based economy puts a premium on cerebral skills, in which cognition is the ignition of productivity and innovation. Depression attacks that vital asset.’

The cost to business is difficult to estimate accurately but is certainly considerable. The City Mental Health Alliance puts the annual cost to UK employers at £26bn a year, while a recent report by the Business Leadership Forum argues that ‘mental disorders wipe out 4% of the European economy year in and year out’.

A study by the European Depression Association (EDA) found that one in 10 workers in Europe has taken time off as a result of depression, with the average absence being 36 days per episode. An equally big problem, though, is workers who struggle on at work through their depression. The EDA found that employees with depression who remain at work reported lost productivity time of an average of 5.6 hours per week.

In the UK, it is estimated that 1.5 times as much working time is lost through this ‘presenteeism’ as it is from depression-related absenteeism. Since presenteeism is a phenomenon  most likely to be seen in senior staff, the costs can quickly escalate. »

The profession starts to engage

KPMG is one firm taking steps to raise awareness of mental health in the workplace and is exploring how to offer a mental health awareness programme for managers. Nick Baber, a director in the firm’s financial services consulting team and a member of the executive committee of the City Mental Health Alliance, says a culture of openness and support is critical.

‘People often present a different persona in their personal and professional lives, fearing rejection by their peers if they fail to project a certain image,’ he explains. ‘It would be far better if employees were comfortable enough in their working environment to be themselves, but this will only happen if senior business leaders with experience of mental health problems tell their own stories and implement performance indicators that measure and report on progress in the workplace.

‘The taboo associated with openly discussing depression will also be easier to remove if organisations commit to providing mental health training for anyone with line-management responsibilities. After all, knowing how to support a colleague is a critical first step in helping them deal with their situation at work.’

Palma Michel, a former board-level headhunter and now partner at BeYoCo, an organisation that trains executives and organisations in mindfulness techniques, says there is still a long way to go: ‘While many people feel comfortable expressing they are stressed at work, people often don’t feel comfortable speaking openly about being depressed or feeling anxious. Events like mental health awareness weeks and employers taking steps to create awareness around symptoms are helpful steps, but to remove the stigma we need to create supportive cultures where depression and anxiety are not seen as a weakness but an illness.’ 

Liz Fisher, journalist