Depression and mental health issues have become one of the leading causes of sick leave and short-term disability claims at Online Computer Library Center, a worldwide co-operative of libraries that employs 1,300 workers globally, including 950 in the U.S. Yet Susan Marsico, director of corporate benefits and HR systems, doesn’t believe her company’s experience with depression is much different than that of other organizations.

“One of our top three drug classes [is] anti-depressive medications and, again, that's very common among employers, she says.

And while the company has long promoted its employee assistance program and the EAP enjoys a high utilization rate, Marsico decided last year to place greater emphasis on depression as part of the company’s overall wellness program, in the hopes of reducing the stigma still associated with mental health issues.

She turned to Right Direction, a new workplace campaign from the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health and Employers Health. It’s an educational initiative created to raise awareness about workplace depression, promote early recognition of symptoms and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness.

“Our goals for this mission, I think, are pretty simple,” says Marcas Miles, senior director, marketing and communications, Employers Health, a coalition of more than 300 employers across the U.S. “One is to raise awareness about depression in the workplace and two is to reduce the stigma. It’s really on the part of the employer, at this point, to help create an environment where employees are comfortable to come forward [and seek help.]”

The program includes posters, Internet and newsletter copy, PowerPoint presentations for the C-suite and front-line managers, along with a field guide with implementation instructions. All of the resources are free and can be used as is, or can be changed to fit with a particular company’s brand or wellness program. About 1,000 employer kits have been distributed so far, and the resources can also be downloaded through an app. Employers can request copies of the implementation guide at RightDirectionForMe.com/ForEmployers.

The campaign’s branding is refreshing and graphic design was a significant consideration when the program was first being discussed and created. Through focus groups, “employers told us they wanted something that cut through the clutter that looked different than anything else that might be on the market relative to the drugs for depression, and [material] that employees could relate to,” says Miles. “Moreover, employers told us they wanted something that they didn’t have to do a whole lot to launch.”

The ease of implementation certainly appealed to Marsico, whose department was short-staffed at the time she decided to launch the program. “I thought ‘Wow, I don't know if I'm going to be able to do this.’ But it's so easy all the communications are there, the presentations are there, and it's just really easy to do,” she says.

Depression-disability link

Only one-third of people with a diagnosable mental health condition ever reach out for help, says Clare Miller, director of Partnership for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Foundation. And, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26% of Americans aged 18 and older — about one-in-four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, calls depression the leading cause of disability worldwide.

“Lots of employers talk about the high incidence of disability due to mental health diagnoses,” she says. “By the time they do seek care, they’re really in trouble and sometimes, unfortunately, that means that they’re unable to work and [they] go on disability.”

Employers can play an important role in helping reduce the stigma around depression, anxiety and other mental health issues and, in doing so, hopefully reduce their incidence of costly disability claims. “If you really create an environment, use these tools to decrease stigma, really leverage the heck out of your existing, fabulous EAP and mental health programs and drive more people to reach out for care early, you will decrease disability,” says Miller.

Reducing stigma

Miller offers four suggestions for employers to help reduce the stigma of depression in the workplace:

1. Get leadership on board. “We encourage that in the implementation guide at the very beginning — getting your leadership on board with the program,” she says. “Having them help launch the program and tell employees about it is one way to really visibly [say to employees]: ‘listen, we really mean this. The company is behind this. The company wants you to take action and to take care of yourself.’”

2. Leverage resources you already have. Use your EAP as a partner to help you deliver key messages. “One of the things that research shows is that stigma could be reduced by personal contact, people being open about their experiences. Having the EAP on-site and hosting a lunch-and-learn and that sort of thing can help with creating those relationships where people feel more safe,” says Miller.

At OCLC, the program is being promoted as an extension of the existing wellness program, which Marsico says takes a holistic approach and focuses on physical, financial and mental health. She has plans to bring the company’s EAP in for a lunch-and-learn session to “focus on that family unit because we don’t want to just say ‘if you’re depressed, use this program.’ We want it to be more open and inclusive.”

3. Stress confidentiality. Remind employees regularly that the EAP and other counseling resources are a safe way to seek help.

4. Consider the visual appeal of the materials. “A lot of times when you see a mental health campaign, it’s someone with their head in their hands. It’s really a bleak imagery,” says Miller. “The branding of this [Right Direction] program is so anathema and different that it helps to really create a buzz.”

Because the Right Direction materials are public domain, tracking the downstream effects of their use is difficult. But in an effort to learn from others, “we’re hosting regular technical assistance calls where we’re bringing employers together to talk about their implementation efforts and provide a space for employers to learn best practices and learn from one another,” says Miles.

And despite her initial apprehension, OCLC’s Marsico has been pleased with feedback she’s received from employees about the program.

“I had a number of people email me directly right after [the launch] and say ‘I’m so excited we’re focusing on this. If I can help with any of the programming, I have some ideas,’ or ‘I’ve gone through this,’ or ‘My parents have gone through this,’ or ‘I see some of my colleagues who I don't know for sure, but I think [they might be depressed, let me know if I can help.’ That's been great.”

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