Mental illness takes a bigger toll on business than physical woes, and disability absences are twice as long when triggered by depression.

If your bottom line has you feeling blue, don’t let that feeling get out of hand, or the bottom line could really suffer.

That’s because while workers with behavioral health problems—a phrase that encompasses substance abuse and mental health problems—are a small percentage of the overall workforce, they are responsible for a large percentage of overall health expenditures.

Marquette Turner has found studies in the US that indicate, for example, that roughly 6 percent of the U.S. workforce is depressed at any given time. But according to Sibson Consulting in Chicago, behavioral health issues cause 217 million missed workdays annually, account for 7.6 percent of total health care dollars, and are the fifth leading cause of short-term disability and, ultimately, the third leading cause of long-term disability.

Studies also show that 29 percent of health- and productivity-related expenditures are a result of employee absence and disability caused by physical health problems, while 47 percent are caused by mental health conditions.

Lost productivity from behavioral health problems can be staggering. For example, a 2006 Aetna analysis of claims found that disability absences doubled in length when the cause was depression. In a study of employers—including large private employers and governmental entities—OptumHealth Behavioral Solutions found that the average annual cost of lost productivity due to depression was $5 million per company.

Just letting employees know what benefits exist and encouraging them to utilize them is a good strategy. Firms should also analyze who is prescribing antidepressants and encourage employees to go to mental health professionals instead of general practitioners, Donahue says.
Antidepressants are often prescribed by general practitioners, but studies show that a combination of medicine and psychiatric therapy is the most effective treatment. Going to a mental health professional and getting therapy along with medication is more likely to result in better treatment, she says.

Employees who are depressed have higher medical utilization rates, so medical plan costs are higher. Depression becomes the costliest behavioral health-related issue for employers because when the high prevalence of depression among employees is factored together with medical, pharmaceutical and workplace productivity costs, the total cost to the employer is huge.

Employers should have a systematic program for treating depression. Training managers and organizational leaders to identify depression is also critical because workers may not recognize that they are depressed, she says.

Christine Watson christine@marquetteturner.com.au

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