You can't blame business, let alone society, for not grasping the full impact of untreated depression on individuals and those who live and work with them when it's only been fairly recently that medical practitioners have gotten their arms more or less around this often baffling disease.

Depression is a disease that can exist alone or alongside other diseases and can present itself with a range of symptoms. It is also highly treatable but only if a diagnosis is made and treatment is sought.

Problem is not enough people understand what exactly depression is, the many ways it manifest itself, how it differs from other “mental” disease, and what the consequences are when it is left untreated to help push those in need of treatment to receive it. Sufferers are just as likely as anyone else not to know what depression is and what can be done about it.

As Annette Hanson, M.D, medical director of the public sector div. of Norfolk, VA-based ValueOptions, Inc, a behavioral healthcare company, pointed out at a Disability Management Employer Coalition conference this summer, the cost of depression in the workplace goes unrecognized.

“For every 100 employees, 50 will suffer from depression or other mental disorders, such as anxiety, stress, substance abuse and adult attention deficit disorder,” Dr. Hanson stated. “Only high cholesterol has this high prevalence rate. Of the mental disorders, depression is the most disruptive when not recognized and treated.”

And that disruptive impact is substantial. According to Hanson, employees with depression have higher rates of other chronic diseases such as arthritis, high blood pressure, back pain, heart problems, and diabetes. They may have other disorders as well, such as chronic pain and autoimmune diseases.

The good news is treating depression does get results. Hanson said a study of workers with depression “and other ill-defined illnesses” showed those who received treatment increased their average hours worked over a two-week period from 62 hours to 68.5 hours.

“While this may not be a full-time schedule for many employers,” she remarked, “this still is a 10% increase in time at work. Employees with more common somatic [bodily]disorders such as migraine headache and high blood pressure did not increase their work hours to the same extent after receiving treatment.”

Hanson stated that the “cost to employers in lost days of work due to employees with depression is greater than that of employees with other common somatic disorders. The combination of depression plus another illness is especially costly.”

The upshot, Hanson contended, is “not treating depression and anxiety and other stress-related disorders causes an enormous disruption in our places of work and enormous costs to our companies.”

On top of that, she noted that depression tends to strike during a person's prime working years and it can imitate or mask other disorders that may result in disability claims, making disability and return to work criteria difficult.

The doctor's workplace prescription was straightforward and puts the onus on supervisory personnel, who of course truly know the employees: “Managers and front-line supervisors should become aware of mental health workplace issues including identification of performance problems and the possibility of depression and anxiety disorders as an underlying issue in some somatic disease states.

“These disorders can be treated as effectively, if not more so,” she added, “than many of the chronic somatic disorders we routinely provide coverage for in our healthcare benefit packages.”