Stress and Depression - not a passing mood swing

Jenny Hayesin Training & Education

One of the greatest challenges facing employers, in an environment where staff numbers are reduced and when performance and productivity levels need to be higher than before, is how to deal with stress and anxiety among staff before depression takes hold.

In this article, Jenny Hayes, Head of Management Training within IBEC (Irish Business and Employers' Confederation) explains the facts and discusses what employers should be doing to help

Depression, often called the common cold of mental illness, may be defined as an illness that involves the body, mood and thought. Good mental health at work enables a person to cope with the demands of their role, ensuring they are productive and positive when they are at work.

One way to think about mental well being is by looking at how well a person functions, does their job and interacts with others at work. The good news is that, in more than 80% of cases, treatment is effective, so knowing when to identify when a staff member is stressed, anxious or depressed, and then having the skills to deal with it effectively, is the best course of action for any employer.

Depression begins with stress, which is when the perceived demands of the job are greater than the person's perceived ability to cope. The importance of the outcome will determine the level of stress experienced. It is when stress levels are not managed by the person, or continue for an extended length of time, that the person moves into the anxiety arena. This is a state of fear, which affects the person on a range of levels, including productivity, ability to relate to others, loss of appetite and more. It is when this feeling of anxiety persists for a period of time that a person can enter the depression area, with the level of depression ranging from mild to severe.

Overall then, mental health describes how we think and feel about ourselves as well as how able we are to cope with change and significant life events that we encounter. This article will look at the facts about depression, symptoms in the workplace, and the role of the organisation.

The Facts about Depression

It is estimated that 5-10% of the population suffer from depression at any given time Research shows that, by 2020, depression will become the second most common illness in the western world. Mental health problems account for up to 30% of consultations with GPs in Europe. Depression is an illness that involves the body, mood and thoughts.

In Ireland, 85% of people agree that anyone can experience mental health problems, but 62% would not want others knowing if they had a mental health problem. Experts estimate that approximately one out of every two families will have some member of the family who suffers from depression at one point in their lives. Depression at work manifests itself through changes in performance and behavioural change.
Success at work depends on everyone's contribution. Organisations cannot afford to ignore depression at work. When you are stressed, your brain works differently. You are more likely to resort to 'all or nothing' thinking, which causes catastrophic thinking and difficulties solving complex problems.

It is not a passing mood. It is not a personal weakness. It is a major, but treatable illness. Patients with depressive symptoms spend more days in bed than those with diabetes, arthritis and back problems. Women are twice as likely to experience depression as men. The average period of time that a person suffers from depression (apart from endogenous depression), if left untreated, is eight months.

When a person is stressed, their brain works differently. This can often lead to 'all or nothing' thinking, which reduces effectiveness in solving problems. Two thirds of both men and women say work has a significant impact on their stress levels.

Signs of Depression in the Workplace

Usually, the symptoms of depression develop over time. Typically, the employee experiences anxiety and mild depressive periods that range from weeks to several months. The time when an employee is most likely to suffer from depression is when they are aged between twenty-four and forty-four years old. Depression in the workplace shows itself through changes in performance and behaviours, which include:

1. Decreased or inconsistent productivity
2. Absenteeism, lateness and frequent absence from work area
3. Increased errors and lower quality of work
4. Procrastination
5. Withdrawal from co workers
6. Overly sensitive or emotional reactions
7. Decreased interest in work
8. Slowed thoughts
9. Difficulty learning or remembering
10. Slowed movement and actions
11. Frequent comments about being tired

Stress PaperPile
The Role of the Organisation

Clever, progressive organisations are those that help their staff to meet the challenge of increased demands, reduced staffing, fear and increased levels of negativity in the economy and the country as a whole before it is too late. Some of the approaches that need to be considered in order to do this include training and development, having good policies and procedures in this area and focusing on employee engagement.

HR Policies and Procedures

Putting in place policies and procedures that ensure the well being of staff is taken seriously by the organisation sends a clear message to the workforce of the support for the individual's mental wellbeing at work.

A review of current systems and how they work in an environment where more and more people are experiencing stress at work would be a useful starting point. Determining what is and what isn't working currently in terms of, for example, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), feedback about work pressures to line managers, absenteeism rates and stress related sickness levels allows for the amendment and introduction of policies appropriate to the organisation.

Having a mental health policy is something that demonstrates an employer's commitment to taking care of employees that work within the organisation. Such an initiative shows that the organisation recognises and accepts that mental health is an important issue and emphasises the organisation's commitment to promoting the mental health of its workforce. A focus on raising employee engagement levels is one that research shows to have a powerful impact on wellbeing and motivation at work.

Organisations that invest in ensuring employees feel included and part of the organisation they belong to, reduce feelings of isolation, stress and separation which are often associated with poor mental health and depression at work.

Management Training and Development

Employee education, about depression and its treatment, needs to be included in the training plan of the organisation, with the starting point of effective stress and depression prevention practices at work being good people management. Employees must learn to self identify depressive symptoms.

By recognising symptoms within the individual's own performance early, and by educating staff as to the supports provided by the organisation, problems are less likely to escalate further. Up skilling managers to identify stress and anxiety among their teams, and to intervene when needed in order to prevent the situation getting worse, is one of the most effective ways of supporting people at work and ensuring staff feel engaged, cared for and motivated to continue to perform to their maximum capabilities.

Training managers and supervisors to identify the symptoms and recognise when intervention is necessary is a vital first step. Several researchers have shown that organisations that train their managers to avoid the following practices are likely to reduce the instances of depression among the workforce:

- Setting short work deadlines that are not realistic
- Giving staff complex work responsibilities, but no decision making authority
- Giving staff routine and monotonous jobs only
- Poor management practices where managers are seen to be unfair or non supportive of staff
- Failing to give praise and recognition to staff

Therefore, many of these stressors are avoidable in terms of up skilling managers to give regular feedback, listen to staff, be fair in their dealings with those in their teams and to set realistic, challenging goals that stretch the person to a level where they feel competent to achieve the targets. Also, the level of trust that staff have for the organisation is central to building resilience among the workforce. A critical element of this is the level of trust that exists between managers and staff. By investing in the development of people management skills and competencies, the quality of this primary relationship is enhanced.

Focus on Employee Engagement

The Corporate Leadership Council surveyed 500,000 people across a range of businesses, in the years 2008 to 2010. The levels of staff who were highly disengaged was 10% in 2008, 20% in 2009 to 33% in 2010. They also showed that discretionary effort dropped by 53% since its peak in 2005. Therefore, the severity of this issue is clear, highlighting the absolute need for organisations to prevent these levels of disengagement falling further in the years ahead.

Organisations that invest in developing higher levels of engagement among the workforce, so that employees feel more connected to the organisation, are less likely to experience high stress levels, as there is a negative correlation between stress and employee engagement levels at work. By focusing on increasing levels of engagement, staff are encouraged to, and more likely to, discuss when they are feeling stressed and what help they may need to deal with the pressure, thus preventing it from becoming a more serious problem.

A wellbeing focus is one whereby organisations adopt a range of measures aimed at ensuring employees have higher levels of overall health and resilience at work. In a survey by HR consultants, Towers Perrin, in 2008, eighty percent believed their employers should encourage employees to adopt healthy lifestyles. Programmes run for staff include ones on how to manage stress and pressure, learning relaxation and resilience techniques, healthy eating and exercise programmes etc.

The onus, in these types of initiatives, is to encourage staff themselves to take ownership of their own wellbeing, whilst the organisation supports them in this process. By investing in the care of the individual through initiatives such as these, progressive organisations understand the correlation between wellbeing, trust and performance levels.


A 2007 HSE Report on mental health in Ireland concluded that there is a negative association among Irish people regarding those diagnosed with mental health problems. Therefore, there is a need for those at work to be more aware of how widespread this issue is so that the stigma attached to it can be reduced.

People need to be able to talk about their mental health and to have an employer and personnel manager who is equipped to have this conversation with their team regarding how they are coping at work and what supports they may need from time to time to manage their workload and the pressures within the role.

Social isolation is often associated with those who are suffering from depression. Therefore, progressive employers offer assistance to staff who may need it, but also encourage managers and their teams to engage and interact with each other. Although employers who encourage their people to talk and become more open about their mental health may not have the complete answer, it will certainly help with reducing the negative connotations associated with this subject and help to promote a more supportive, inclusive working environment.

Research shows that productivity, absenteeism, and potential continued employment can be positively impacted with proper treatment for depression. Good policies, procedures, training and organisational supports in this area make real sense for both the individual and the organisation.

Jenny Hayes is the Head of Management Training within IBEC. She is responsible for the design and delivery of a range of programmes to both the IBEC and SFA membership. She has a wide range of experience in all aspects of training related to management, human resources, pyschology and interpersonal skills. IBEC provides a range of management development courses to member organisations in industrial relations, human relations, employment law and personal skills areas.

This article was first published in Greenside, the official magazine of the GCSAI, and is reproduced by permission