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Depression Sufferers Fear Stigma at Work

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Many workers feel that they will be penalized if they openly acknowledge that they suffer from depression, according to a study released this month by the University of Michigan Depression Center.

The study looks at the way employees suffering from the disease believe they are perceived at the office and management's responses and perceptions. It found there is a difference between the way employers believe they respond to depressed workers and what employees say they experience in the workplace.

The study reported that a majority of the workers who suffer from depression said there was a stigma attached to the illness, even when their treatments succeeded in alleviating symptoms. For example, only 41 percent of the employees felt they could acknowledge their illness and still get ahead in their careers, researchers said.

Of those polled, 65 percent of the benefit managers said their firms offer employee assistance programs for workers who suffer from depression, but only 14 percent of depressed employees have used the service, the study said.

In all, 85 percent of middle managers said helping workers with depression is part of their job, but only 18 percent have received the training needed to identify workers with depression and effectively intervene in their behalf, according to the study.

Eighty-three percent of the benefit managers felt their companies had taken steps to ensure that workers with depression were supported by coworkers, but only 37 percent had conducted proactive depression education programs for their staff. And while 78 percent of the benefit managers believe loss in productivity due to depression is more costly to companies than helping workers get the appropriate treatment, only 11 percent said they have offered employee screenings.

"Before employees can be treated, they need to first understand that they have an illness," said Thomas Carli, a psychiatrist and a member of the University of Michigan Depression Center.

Carli added that providing inexpensive screening, disease education, and management training programs can go a long way to helping depressed workers and the companies they work for. He said such initiatives "can have a tremendous impact on worker productivity and overall employee well-being." According to the university, one in 10 workers is depressed, costing companies as much as $52 billion annually due to absenteeism and lost or reduced productivity. University researchers said the physical symptoms of depression, which include aches, pains, headaches, and backaches, can make it difficult to effectively diagnose employees and magnify the economic burden of employees.

When the university interviewed depressed workers, it found that 82 percent had difficulty concentrating, 83 percent said they lacked motivation, and 24 percent complained of chronic physical pain that made it uncomfortable for them to work. Additionally, 50 percent said they had missed one to three days of work per month because of their illness.

The study pointed out that once depression is treated, the individual's work performance is indistinguishable from coworkers' who do not have the disorder.

"In general, employees in companies with a greater number of best practices implemented, express higher levels of job satisfaction, are less likely to view their illness as a barrier to career advancement, have greater control of disease symptoms, and feel strongly that their company is supporting them with their illness," the report said.

The study results are based on two random surveys, one an online survey of 443 employees who suffer from depression, the other a telephone survey of 300 middle managers and 207 benefit managers. The online survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.66 percentage points. The telephone survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.66 percentage points. All of the participants worked at companies with at least 500 employees.

TELECOMMUTING APPEARS TO BE HERE TO STAY The Economic Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., reports that one in six employees work from home at least once a week.

The report looks at trends among the nation's 19.8 million teleworkers. It reveals that 17 percent are employed by a company and 30 percent are self-employed. Michael Chittenden, director of communications at the foundation, said the remaining 53 percent are employed individuals who take work home but not as part of a formal telecommuting plan with their employers. Instead, they voluntarily take work home at night or work at home on weekends or holidays.

Who is most likely to telecommute? According to the report, 14.8 percent of male workers telecommute. By contrast, 15.2 percent of working women say they work from home at least once a week.

Additionally, 17 percent of workers with children under the age of 18 find it more convenient to do some work from home. Only 13.7 percent of employees without children telecommute, the study said.

"Key differences exist in the prevalence of telework depending on employee occupation," said the report. "While teleworkers exist in all occupations, they are much more common in occupations that do not require an employee's presence at the work site. Workers who used to be tied to the office by their dependency on computers and more recently, the Internet, are now free to work from home and connect to the office via broadband Internet connections and virtual networking capabilities." Employees who tend to telework include sales staff, managerial, and professional employees whose daily presence is not required in the workplace. Of those, four out of five telecommute regularly, the study said.

How effective are telecommuters? The foundation said in a separate a report that telecommuters handled 26 percent more calls and brought in 43 percent more business than workers doing the same job from the office.

While the benefits of telework are large for both employees and employers, careful planning is required to avoid potential pitfalls.

"Employees must be able to work in a largely self-directed environment that requires self-motivation and self-discipline," the report said.

Editor Notes:(For use by New York Times News Service clients)

c.2004 The Boston Globe

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