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 The Down Side: Employee Absenteeism 
The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Over Matter by . View all columns in series
On the ride to work you can't stop worrying about the project that's due tomorrow.

Your team has been at it for months. There's only one more day left to arrange the final materials and presentation. You know how important the project has become. You realize what's at stake for your organization.

The wrap-up meeting commences at 8:00 am. As you begin to review the final agenda, your secretary hands you a sticky note. Your heart sinks. John, your marketing team leader, just called in sick. "Not again!" you utter to yourself, as your blood pressure rises. It's going to be an incredible challenge scrambling to the finish line without him. "I suppose we'll be here past midnight!"

Absenteeism and poor work productivity are more common and potentially devastating than you might imagine. Yet while one might assume there’s nothing we can do to effectively deal with these problems, new data recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry (May 2001) provides some rather fascinating insights.

Researchers at Yale studied 6,000 employees at three corporations. They disclosed findings that every employer must consider:

  1. Depressed workers are twice as likely to miss work due to health reasons than non-depressed workers.
  2. Decreased job performance is seven times more prevalent in depressed workers compared to non-depressed workers.

Bottom line - the "don’t ask" attitude may be accounting for corporate losses of billions of dollars each year due to undisclosed depression. Beyond economic impact, quality of life is often severely impaired not only for the sufferer but for family members and co-workers as well.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), in any given 1-year period, 9.5 percent of the population, or about 18.8 million American adults, suffer from a depressive illness. Despite these numbers, as a society we tend to overlook the disorder when telltale signs stand out like the writing on the wall.

Identifying depression isn't difficult.

According to the NIMH, depressed people often experience a persistent sad, anxious, or "empty" mood coupled with feelings of hopelessness and pessimism. Some have persistent feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness as well as loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that they once enjoyed, including sex. In addition, decreased energy, fatigue coupled with difficulty concentrating, remembering and making decisions often occurs. Depression is frequently associated with insomnia, early-morning awakenings, or oversleeping as well as appetite and/or weight loss, or overeating and weight gain. Restlessness and irritability typically ensue in addition to a host of physical symptoms such as headaches or digestive symptoms that do not respond to treatment. As you might conclude, this vast presentation of symptoms can sometimes be mistaken for a host of other disorders that prompt repeated medical visits.

When you take time to consider your co-workers (some of whom tend to make your life and work extremely challenging), it becomes obvious depression might be an overwhelming factor in their lives. It's time to realize your most difficult employee or co-worker may not be deliberately letting you or your company down.

Unfortunately the stigmata of mental illness often keeps the diagnosis of depression well-hidden. As these researchers concluded, one of the factors determining decreased work productivity may be that workers do not consider depression a valid reason for taking sick leave. As a result, a substantial portion of our workforce is significantly impaired each day. This isn't an inspiring thought for the workday ahead.

The obvious problem we face as a nation is improving detection. While screening techniques may be beneficial under certain circumstances, it isn't difficult to mask one’s true feelings, especially on a questionnaire. So where do we begin? Perhaps it's best to start by looking in the mirror, and being honest with yourself and your physician. Realize that causes for depression extend far beyond genetics. Biological issues and reactions to life’s hardships should always be considered.

And if after reading this column, you clearly see these symptoms in a co-worker, why not delicately suggest seeking medical attention. Never do so out of anger, and do not critically and blatantly state, "You are depressed!" Rather consider suggesting that your co-worker or friend seems "down." This approach can often serve to open a meaningful dialogue.

In the final analysis, time spent caring for the well-being of our co-workers and employees is a worthy investment on many levels. Do it for them but realize you are helping to create a healthier workplace for yourself as well - Mind Over Matter!

©2001 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved

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 About The Author
Barry Bittman, MD is a neurologist, author, international speaker, award-winning producer/director and inventor. As CEO and Medical Director of the Mind-Body Wellness Center, a......moreBarry Bittman MD
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