As one of the most common mental health concerns in the workplace, depression is estimated to cost employers $44 billion dollars in lost productivity each year.

Depression is not just feeling blue or out-of-sorts. It’s a prolonged feeling of loss that can undermine concentration, appetite, and sleep. At its worst, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

A person’s environment, including their workplace environment, can contribute to depression. And, depressive thoughts can spread among groups of people. This makes it crucial for employers to understand if and how their workplaces might be promoting depression. (Learn more in Supporting Employee Mental Health in the Workplace).

If you’re wondering if your workplace is promoting depression, here are a few things to look for.

The Workplace’s Role In Depression

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports, in Mental Health Policies & Programmes in the Workplace, that both the type of work (content) and work environment (context) contribute to mental health issues in the workplace. Consequently, it is important to consider both work’s content and context.

Ultimately, the root cause of workplace depression is that the employee feels that they don’t have control of their situation. Their efforts don’t make a difference and so the employee feels like they don’t matter. Ultimately this results in depressive thoughts and moods.

How Depression Can Spread In A Group

Simply being around people who are experiencing depression affects other people’s feelings and moods.

Depression, as well as other moods and behaviors, can spread through a group via the following mechanisms:

1. Social Comparison

Our own feelings and moods can be influenced by comparing them to someone else’s. This happens when we judge our own situation based on comparing ourselves to what we see other people doing, having, or behaving.

2. Emotional Interpretation

How we read someone else’s feelings can influence our own. This is especially true when the person’s intention is not clear and can be interpreted a number of ways. We read into other people’s words or actions and respond emotionally.

3. Empathy

While being empathetic can be a good thing, being too focused on someone else’s feelings can overwhelm our own feelings. There is a difference between understanding how someone feels and adopting that person’s mood.

Through these mechanisms, the social climate in the workplace plays a role in spreading moods, including promoting depression.

Key Workplace Factors That Can Promote Depression

Ten specific workplace factors have been identified as contributing to depression in the workplace. Separated between the content and context of work they are:

  • Content of work

    • Workload

    • Participation & control

    • Job content

  • Context of work

    • Role in organization

    • Reward (status)

    • Equality (fairness)

    • Interpersonal relationships

    • Work environment

    • Workplace culture

    • Home-work interface

The Content Of Work

When it comes to the content of work, it’s important to strike a balance so that the employee experiences the impact of their work.

The workload needs to be neither too heavy or too light, but rather just the right amount. Employees also need the opportunity to influence the makeup of their job: the tasks they do, the order they do them in, and the contribution they make to the final product and the work team.

These are the practices that help the employee experience and acknowledge the impact their work efforts have and how much control they have in the workplace. Having a sense of control counters the root cause of depression.

The Context Of Work

Regarding the context of work, workplace values, practices, and relationships come into play.

Every employee wants to know their role in the workplace and have their contributions recognized. They want to know that they (and everyone else in the workplace) are being treated fairly and with respect — that there are no “favorites” and no one is being discriminated against. They also want workplace demands that they can balance with other aspects of their lives, like family obligations.

A workplace that is inclusive and fair to all employees avoids many of the stresses that lead to distress and, ultimately, depression.

Key Management Practices That Support Mental Health

Beyond the factors listed above there are organizational factors and leadership practices that employers can adopt to support mental health in the workplace. (Learn more in 10 Effective Mental Health Tools To Improve Your Employees' Resilience and Job Performance).

Organizational factors can be addressed with HR practices and policies. They include:

  • Increasing awareness of depression and mental health issues in the workplace

  • Training managers on how to deal with depression and mental health issues

  • Encouraging work-life balance for all employees

  • Developing mental health policies that support getting treatment and reasonable accommodation

  • Treating all people fairly in all business practices and policies

  • Providing mental health screening resources through EAP and health insurance services

  • Monitoring employee engagement in the workplace, including looking out for anyone isolating themselves

Leadership practices are an investment in workplace emotional and organizational health that serve as preventative measures. The key values that leaders can adopt for this purpose are:

  • Appropriate autonomy for individuals and workgroups

  • Flexibility in how the work is performed by individuals

  • Trust extended to everyone in the organization

  • Resilience in response to changing demands and environments

An Investment That Will Pay Off

Knowing what to look for in the workplace that might be promoting depression is well worth the effort. Investing in workplace practices and policies that reduce the likelihood of depression will improve both the quality of life for your employees and quality of work they deliver.