Opening Up About Depression in the Workplace

Opening Up About Depression in the Workplace

Why employers should lead the fight to destigmatize mental illness in the workplace.

When a female employee reveals her breast cancer diagnosis, she is often met with an outpouring of empathy and support. Few question that she needs accommodation for medical treatment and appointments. Her manager agrees to a request for flexible scheduling or perhaps even suggests it. Her co-workers rally to raise money and maybe sign up to walk with her in a pink-ribbon awareness campaign. Cards, flowers, and food add to the salutary expressions of hope, literally aiding her physical recovery. In short, the workplace functions as a community of caregivers for this person facing a life-threatening illness.

What happens to an employee diagnosed with depression? Employees are generally loathe to tell anyone about it, so it is entirely possible that no one, and certainly not a manager, will actually know about the diagnosis. Once informed of the medical reason for the employee’s distracted, inattentive, or seemingly indifferent behavior, the manager and other members of the team will likely go silent. There won’t be any cards or cakes. Instead, the company will contact the employee’s medical provider for proof of the depression and what it means for the manager’s scheduling needs. Co-workers unfamiliar with depression often will back away.

A physical health crisis is easier to disclose (admit), understand (no one’s fault), accept (it’s tangible), and support (it could happen to anyone) than going public about a mental health crisis. Depression is cloaked in secrecy, guilt, superstition, and fear, perhaps even more in a place like Minnesota where stoicism is a prized trait.

But depression, disclosed or not, is rampant, particularly in the workplace. While 40 percent of all Americans will face some type of mental illness in their lifetimes (a situational “episode”), it is women, as well as workers ages 18 to 25, who are most likely to experience prolonged depression. Women in their childbearing years are the largest group of Americans diagnosed with depression, contributing to an overall annual productivity drop of $44 billion dollars for U.S. employers due to depression in the workplace.

Minnesotans Respond to Urgent Mental Health Needs

Employers, public officials, and other leaders are showing greater recognition of the need to provide better mental health care in Minnesota.

• Post-traumatic stress disorder that’s experienced by many first responders is being addressed in a new law that took effect in Minnesota this year. It allows public safety employees to receive workers’ compensation after being diagnosed with PTSD. This action helps firefighters, paramedics, and other public safety employees get help with PTSD that is related to their work.

• During the 2019 legislative session, one of the first bills passed by the Minnesota House increases mental health programming for farmers under extreme stress in rural areas. Many farmers have been losing money for several years, and the need for counseling and suicide prevention is on the rise.

• The legal profession also is not immune to mental health challenges, including depression. The Minnesota Supreme Court recently issued a call to action to respond to the unmet needs of lawyers struggling with mental illness.

The Minnesota Health Care Action Group, a network of businesses, insurers, and providers, has targeted mental health reform in 2019. From early recognition to optimal care and outcomes, the group has the laudable goal of ensuring mental health parity for all Minnesotans. Some are listening. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a call to action to address the unmet needs of lawyers struggling with mental illness.

In 2008, when the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was signed into law (named in Sen. Wellstone’s memory), the federal legislation was hailed as revolutionary. No longer could group health plans and health insurers impose less favorable benefit limits for mental health or substance abuse disorders than for treatment for physical conditions.

But the stigma of mental illness persists. Among the heavily researched findings of the Action Group, two facts stand out for a layperson: Mental health providers are underpaid compared to other medical specialists (and thus often refuse to join provider networks); and employers don’t know how to foster open conversations about stress, workload, and family commitments. Citing “hurtful labels … like ‘crazy’ or ‘nuts’ ” attached to anxiety-prone or depressed employees, the Action Group insists that the moral imperative for change surpasses even the dire economic concerns that accompany the issue.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a worker must disclose (put her employer “on notice”) of her depression before the law’s protections are triggered. The Minnesota Human Rights Act tracks the ADA’s anti-discrimination scheme.

Currently, New York is the site of a stunning pending lawsuit about workplace depression. Cat Greenleaf, former host of NBC’s Talk Stoop television show, was fired last year after openly discussing her lifelong clinical depression with her co-workers and managers, and on air, to millions of viewers. Set for jury trial in June, Greenleaf’s state court lawsuit reads like a tragic novel designed to, as she says in her complaint, “be a voice for the millions of Americans who suffer from mental illness.”

Suicide Touches People of All Incomes, Occupations

• Health providers, employers, and community organizations in Minnesota are attempting to do a better job of meeting unmet mental health needs.

• Suicides have been increasing in Minnesota, and news coverage of suicides around the nation shows that people of all ages, races, and incomes are susceptible to suicide.

• In March, these individuals, from different walks of life, committed suicide: Sydney Aiello, 19, survivor of Parkland, Fla., mass shooting that occurred in her high school in 2018.
Alan Krueger, 58, Princeton University economist, Princeton, N.J., who served in the Obama administration.
Emma LaRoque, 28, Ogema, Minn., a mother and the daughter of the White Earth tribal police chief.
Jeremy Richman, 49, took his life in March in Connecticut after losing his 6-year-old daughter in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Greenleaf created the concept of sitting on her Brooklyn stoop interviewing high-profile guests such as Jennifer Lopez, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Deepak Chopra. Greenleaf’s lucrative employment contract gave her the right to be informed of any performance deficiency and 30 days to “cure.”

In late 2017, shortly after emailing her supervisor with a lengthy explanation of the grief she was experiencing over a friend’s death (one of many emails Greenleaf sent to describe how she was feeling and why), she was fired with no warning. She had worked with her supervisor for 10 years. NBC, in a legal filing, admitted that the supervisor (also sued by Greenleaf) cited “intimidation of co-workers, ineffective communication, and insubordination” as reasons for the termination.

The New York state court judge put the case on a fast track, while allowing NBC Universal to fully examine Greenleaf’s medical history. Without question, the company had deeper knowledge of her depression than just about any plaintiff in the annals of disability law. Greenleaf even used her disability as a talking point with guests including Dick Cavett (he talked about his own depression), and Tony Shaloub of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

NBC Universal will presumably try to demonstrate to a jury that Greenleaf was not actually depressed; or that NBC had accommodated her, only to realize that she had taken advantage of the situation; or that the work setting had deteriorated to the point where everyone else threatened to quit. She will argue that her highly successful show and work history, including her claim that she “never missed a taping,” prove that but for her disability, she would never have been fired. Greenleaf’s story aptly illustrates the complexity of dealing with a depressed employee, even after years of seeming acceptance.

Linda L. Holstein is a Minneapolis writer, trial lawyer, and veteran employment law attorney with her own law firm, Holstein Law Group. She helps businesses and individuals with workplace issues, including MSP Communications.

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