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For more than a decade, I worked in a building in which I would frequently share an elevator with a particular middle-aged woman.

She never spoke to me, nor looked in my direction. She avoided eye contact with everyone.

She dressed well, but one look into her eyes and you knew this woman was suffering. I don’t know whether she had a serious disease, or was tormented by her home or work life, but I could clearly see she was depressed.

I was fascinated by this in a perverse, intrusive way. I wanted very much to talk to her to find out what the source of her life misery was and why she couldn’t change it or walk away from it. But I didn’t even know her, and it was none of my business. Yet every time she stepped onto the elevator, I felt she was taking another step toward the gallows.

Depression is an ugly disease, and it doesn’t make for a happy, efficient workplace. Yet, millions of depressed workers clock into their jobs day in and day out and their supervisors rarely counsel them to seek help, if they even recognize depression as the source of a troubled worker.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated a decade ago that depression was responsible for 200 million lost workdays each year, or a cost somewhere between $17 billion and $44 billion. A CDC study found that people suffering from depression missed an average of 4.8 workdays and 11.5 days of reduced productivity during a three-month period.

A 2007 national study found that seven percent of full-time workers ages 18 to 64 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year.

Yet, addressing on-the-job depression is often overlooked.

“A lot of times these individuals fear that their employer will not or does not understand them and that they do not usually get the same type of support that they would receive if they had a clear diagnosable medical illness like cancer,” said Luke Hansen, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, psychologist.

“So a lot of times people will therefore not open up about it, maybe try to go to work despite the depression or not get the treatment they need.”

And, while those workers may report to work, they are clearly not prepared to work at their highest level or achieve their best results.

Many companies have employee assistance programs and may help to steer troubled workers toward them. But depression is still a dicey subject that most managers want to avoid. Consquently, the potential effectiveness of those programs is marginalized.

No one can estimate the billions of dollars that are lost due to depressed workers. But you can clearly make the case that any person who comes to work with a physical disease will be directed to take care of that disease. Depression should be no different.

But most of our managers haven’t been given any training or guidance in detecting depressed workers. So the problem lingers. It’s a good time to take this issue seriously and help depressed members of the workforce find help.

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