Depression: the “common cold” of the workplace?

A new study has identified depression as a contaminator amongst workers – but how can employers prevent it from spreading?

Depression: the “common cold” of the workplace?
Depression is notorious for affecting engagement and performance in employees as well as physical health, and there have been many discussions about how to combat the illness.

Past research has shown that Australian businesses lose over $6.5 billion per year by failing to provide early intervention or treatment for workers who are suffering with poor mental health.

But new research suggests that depression could in fact be infectious – and it might be contaminating your workforce.

According to new research conducted by Massey University’s School of Management, the low morale of a manager can ‘infect’ their workforce, rubbing off on staff and affecting their moods.

The study found that leaders who were suffering with depression were more likely to have depressed employees.

Professor Jarrod Harr, who worked on the study, told HC that workplace depression has a “contagion effect”, and can spread from leaders to their staff “like a common cold”.

He added that “leaders who are depressed are also likely to perform poorly (as rated by their followers) and this also influenced the followers’ depression.”

However, he pointed out that the study looked at workplace depression – a form of poor mental health that is not the same as clinical depression, and was self-diagnosed.

Harr had the following tips for employers:
  • Employers should be aware that leaders are likely to influence their staff detrimentally if they are suffering with work depression, so encourage leaders to be aware of their mental health. If they’re feeling down (they agree that they feel ‘depressed’, ‘gloomy’ or ‘miserable’) more often than not, they’re in danger of not only being depressed but also of performing poorly and of making their workers feel depressed.
  • Employers should also encourage mental health days, and allow employees to take a day or two off. This will allow the leader to recharge and enhance their performance, allowing their employees’ moods to normalise and reducing team-wide depression. Perhaps having the CEO or HR manager encourage leaders to be self-aware and take time out when they need to could help. Remember – this is not clinical depression, just a damaged state of mental health caused by workplace stress which stems from things like too many long hours and crazy deadlines.
The AHRC makes it clear that employers’ occupational health and safety (OHS) obligations extend to workers with any form of mental illness.

These OHS obligations mean that employers must identify possible workplace practices, actions or incidents which may cause or contribute to mental illness of workers. Employers must then take action to minimise these risks.

So where do employers stand if a manager’s depression is posing a risk to the mental health of other employees?

HC spoke to Siobhan Mulcahy, director and Melbourne practice lead at People + Culture Strategies, about how employers should respond if such circumstances arise in their workplace.

“Any time that the behaviour of one employee is impacting the health and safety of another employee, that will trigger an employer’s obligation to ensure that all parties are looked after and not vulnerable,” Mulcahy said. “So depending on how the depression is manifesting or transmitting then the employer may be required to take steps order to address the manager’s conduct and how this is impacting employees.”

She emphasised the importance of finding a balance between these obligations and the manager’s rights in respect to their mental health.

“Employers need to respect their obligations. If the employee in question is acting out and being bullying or condescending and action is taken against them, then issues of discrimination or adverse action may arise if these behaviours are symptomatic of depression or poor mental health. However, I would anticipate that most employers would try to deal with engagement issues in another way first by focusing on the employees rather than the manager.”

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