Depression is 1 of the top 5 leading causes of disability resulting in absenteeism in the workplace.

My own company has found that disability duration increases dramatically when disability occurs alongside other conditions.

Disability duration is 25% higher than normal for members with backaches who also suffer from depression, and 63% higher than normal for members with irritable bowel syndrome who are depressed.

Benefits advisors can improve the quality of patient care, increase the productivity of clients’ employees and help clients manage medical costs by educating clients about the importance of depression management and employee assistance programs.

A tightly focused depression management program can actually speed the diagnosis of depression, getting patients into treatment more quickly and assisting with their recovery.

A key factor is making sure the primary care physician’s office screens and assesses patients when they first enter the health care system. That means reimbursing primary care physicians for screening and assessment services is critical to a depression management program’s success. Proper training for office staff, access to case managers, and support from an insurer’s network of behavioral health specialists are also essential.

EAPs also can play a role in helping employees with the financial and emotional challenges of a long disability that might be caused by depression, or aggravated by depression.

EAP professionals can assess an employee’s needs and steer a depressed employee toward local psychologists, therapists, substance abuse counselors and other sources of assistance.

Benefits clients that offer high-quality depression management and employee assistance programs are sending employees an important message: Disability is a health event.

The emphasis should be not just on returning depressed employees to work, but on returning employees to optimal health.

Peg Haennicke is head of disability and leave management services at Aetna Inc., Hartford.

GRAPHIC (Illustrate with an illustration of a depressed person)

Kicker: The Impact

Depression:

- Leads to more than $600 in treatment costs and productivity losses per depressed worker per year.

- May lead to more than $44 billion in annual losses for the United States as a whole.

- Increases the cost of treating a chronic medical illness.

- May interfere with employees’ ability to eat well, stop smoking and follow doctors’ orders about medication use.

Sources: “Economic Impact of Depression in a Workplace,” Journal of Occupational Environmental Medicine, 1994; 36:983-988; General Hospital Psychiatry, 1996; “The Economic Burden of Depression in 1990,” Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 1993; 2:32-35).