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What’s up with this depression wave in the workplace?

3 min read

Today’s work demands are becoming bigger by the quarter and they are starting to put a toll on people’s professional and personal lives. I work weekly with clients who are having trouble sleeping, who experience anxiety symptoms & panic attacks. Worst of all, they have become isolated, hanging out less and less with their friends, binging TV shows and video games instead.

A recent Deloitte report found that the combined costs of ill mental wellbeing in the workplace is closing up to almost 30 bn euro per year. This is combined presenteeism costs, absenteeism costs, and employee turnover.

Presenteeism means showing up at work but being unable to perform your duties, due to poor mental and physical wellbeing. Although it is generally more socially acceptable to miss a day or two due to a physical illness, it is not the same for emotional suffering or long term stress, thus the increase in this relatively new phenomenon.

Although both presenteeism and absenteeism count as indirect costs, their effects on the productivity and the lives of the employees are as direct as can be. The rise of anxiety and depression is living proof of this.

I have been working as a therapist for 9 years and I have seen and heard my share of stories. But the past 4-5 years has brought a new wave of clients to my office. These were people in their 30s, at the peak of their careers, struggling with anxiety, depression and burn out. They had trouble sleeping, lost interest in their favorite activities outside work and although their presence in the office was higher, their productivity and sense of meaning and pleasure from work were gone. Almost all of them took long absences from work and some never returned.

What are the causes of this? One answer that pops in my mind is that jobs have become more fluid. You are no longer required just to sit at your desk and do the specific part of the job that you were assigned on. There are increased demands in agility, flexibility, complex problem solving, and although these demands are not irrational or farfetched, they are too many at once for a person to be able to adapt.

Another answer is that the dynamic in the workplace is the same as when peoples’ jobs and demands were more fixed. This means that although creativity, complex problem solving and agility are must-haves, the organizational culture, and applied values are the same as in the carrot and stick approach. You can see this in situations where although your job requires you to innovate and to come up with different approaches to tackle an issue, you are penalized, directly or indirectly, for mistakes.

Moreover, I have seen directly in my practice that working with a constructive mindset is really hard on our generation. We were brought up to believe that in order to be considered a “good” student, then a “good” employee means doing things “great” and not showing mistakes and weaknesses. This is in direct contradiction with abilities such as flexibility, creativity, and fluidity. It is hard on people to accept that they are a constant process of learning and transforming and this is keeping them stuck in a vicious circle of perfectionism and frustration.

We, as workers of the 21st century, and companies of the 21st century cannot do the same thing as we have done. At this rate, depression and related emotional problems will become the leading cause of sick leave in Western societies in less than 5 years. And then we will have a bigger problem on or hands, as innovation and creativity will start to decline.

Mental wellbeing benefits should become as important as dental health plans are today. Companies and workers alike must become more aware of the risks and to start freeing mental wellbeing at the office on one hand by speaking of it often and on the other by raising the stigma of treating emotional suffering.

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