Depression Lowers Productivity

Depression costs employers $44 billion in lost productive time. The disease is a leading cause of disability, but a hidden one.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on July 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

The toll of depression can be counted many ways. It robs spouses of partners. Children of parents. And it estranges sufferers from themselves, in addition to robbing all pleasure from their life.

Depression also takes a huge toll in the workplace as well. It costs employers $44 billion a year in lost productive time, versus $13 billion lost from those without depression.

It's not that depressed workers are frequently absent. It's just that even when they're there, they're not. "A total of 81.1% of the lost productive time costs are explained by reduced performance while at work," a team of researchers reported.

The phenomenon has been called presenteeism—a kind of absent presence, being on the job but not working productively. As a result, depression is a leading cause of disability, but an invisible one. The costs are hidden in plain view—an excess of $31 billion among individuals actively engaging in work. That figure is over and above the direct medical cost of depression.

A disproportionate share of workers with depression, the study found, experience physical symptoms as part of their disorder. The most common group of physical symptoms includes pain, weakness and fatigue. Sensory or motor impairment was only slightly less common. And a still significant number of workers reported such physical symptoms as ringing ears or head fullness.

Physical symptoms are a common presence in depression, a product of dysfunction in nerve pathways that extend down into the body as well as up into the brain. But the physical symptoms may also be linked to depression as a way to manage it; they help people assume a "sick role" that legitimizes reduced performance.

Depression was most prevalent among workers with the lowest levels of education. And it was also associated with lower annual salaries.