At Work, Depression Is a Literal Downer

You either are suffering from or work beside someone suffering from depression and anxiety. You also either are someone or work beside someone who dismisses mental illness, makes a snide joke about it, or tells depressed employees and coworkers that they’re just lazy or unmotivated.

Depressed employees, in turn, withdraw more, isolate further, and end up getting sicker. And that’s just the humanistic cost. You want to talk dollars? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that depression leads to 200 million lost workdays in America every year, which costs employers as much as $44 billion. The World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety are one of the leading causes of disability in the world.

And yet it has taken Carol Kivler, president of Kivler Communications and founder of the nonprofit Courageous Recovery (both on Traditions Way in Trenton), three years to get in front of a group of HR professionals and kickstart the conversation about mental illness among employees.

Kivler will present “Depression in the Workplace — Starting the Dialogue” at the Human Resources Management Association’s dinner meeting on Monday, December 8, at 6 p.m. at Salt Creek Grille in Forrestal Village. Cost: $50. Visit http://hrma-nj.shrm.org.

The stigma surrounding mental illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety, is maybe the most pervasive stigma in the health arena. There is no more common problem that people are unwilling to address. People suffering from depression are seen as weak, disconnected, unmotivated, removed, weird. People avoid the depressed or offer such dazzling pearls of wisdom as “you just gotta have a positive attitude.”

“Can you imagine if we said that to someone with cancer?” Kivler asks. The problem is, we don’t see depression on a par with other diseases, despite the fact that depression and anxiety (which often go hand-in-hand with high amounts of stress) can lead to hospitalization, lifelong medical attention, prescription drugs, and a slow deterioration of the physical body.

Case in point: “When my sister, God love her, was diagnosed with cancer, she got brownies and casseroles,” Kivler says. Meanwhile, when Kivler suffered her first major mental breakdown and she ended up hospitalized, given shock therapy, and put on medication, no one came anywhere near her. In fact, she says, when she goes to a new doctor, the doctor always asks what the medications listed on her forms are for. When she tells him the meds are for mental illness, he takes a step backward and folds his arms across his chest.

“I step closer to them and say, ‘I’m not contagious,’” she says.

Kivler, who founded Courageous Recovery in 2006 (and which was finally granted nonprofit status this year), makes no secret of her battles with mental illness. Her grandmother and father, a construction worker, dealt with it, though her father drank to medicate himself, she says. Her genetic predisposition coalesced with the delayed onset of coping with an unfaithful husband and led to her first major breakdown.

She has what’s known as medicine-resistant depression, which means that when she feels herself slipping (mind-racing insomnia is a sure tipoff) she needs shock treatment to reset herself. She’s been hospitalized four times and has logged more than 100 hours in a psychiatric ward.

“Try selling that to an employer,” she says.

But here’s the thing: Kivler is not cured. She never will be. She is, rather, a picture of treatment, management, and recovery. And this, says Kivler, is no different than someone like her nephew, who is diabetic and must manage his illness for the rest of his life. She is sick, and some days her illness hits harder than other.

The former high school teacher who earned her bachelors in business education from Trenton State College in 1972 also taught business writing at Mercer County Community College for 13 years. In 1994 she started Kivler Communications, speaking to and consulting for corporate executives.

1996, at the age of 46, and with all three of her children in college, Kivler went to Fordham for a master’s degree in human resources education. Ten years later she founded Courageous Recovery as a vehicle with which to get the dialogue about mental illness (particularly in the workplace) started. For eight years she financed her workshops out of her own pocket. Now, after her accountant suggested going nonprofit, Kivler is starting to get grants, donations, and sponsorships — including a recurring donation from a Pilates school, which is sending Courageous Recovery 75 percent of its Monday take (about $400 a month) to help finance more workshops and outreach.

Some numbers. Kivler’s hope to get HR tongues wagging about the importance of recognizing and openly discussing mental health among employees is rooted in some rather sobering facts. For one thing, employee engagement is directly tied to mental health and to productivity, and employees who are engaged and content lower the risk of health-related costs by about 40 to 60 percent. They also generate 27 percent fewer unexplained absences and are about 20 percent more likely to participate in workplace wellness programs.

Engaged employees also lead to fewer accidents and fewer quality control defects. Depressed employees tend to disengage and, consequently, can put coworkers at risk or contribute to public image problems with customers. Furthermore, Kivler says, close to 10 percent of all U.S. workers contend with depression and anxiety at work, whether brought on by workplace issues or personal problems outside the office. And a third of those already suffering from depression at work are getting help for it — which means that two-thirds are not.

What to do. First off, Kivler says, addressing employee mental health is not some guarded psychiatric secret. The dialogue begins by recognizing the signs of depression and disengagement — lateness, numerous sick days, blown deadlines, etc. — and simply asking the person if something is wrong.

You would be surprised how infrequently that happens, by the way. Kivler says the unwillingness to talk to someone about their problems isn’t just fear of contamination (or fear of being weighed down by someone else’s problems), it’s mainly ignorance. “People just don’t know what to say to someone who’s depressed,” she says.

More advanced hope lies in programs like the Right Direction program crafted by the Partnership for Workplace Mental Health, which guides employers and managers through the process of recognizing warning signs and finding ways to help troubled employees. There’s also DuPont Corp.’s ICU (Identify, Connect, Understand) program that has gotten major accolades from mental health professionals for its efforts to bring mental illness in the workplace to the fore. ICU has trained roughly 4,000 managers to identify and help with mental issues and DuPont is now making the program available to businesses everywhere.

Such programs are long-awaited music to Kivler’s ear. These subjects, she believes, should have been broached 25 years ago, and she’s spent nearly a decade “shouting it from the rooftops” that employers need to destigmatize mental illness. And she believes in it so strongly that she’s been taking a loss on the Courageous Recovery business.

“I’m not in it to make money,” Kivler says. “I run Kivler Communications to make money. I run Courageous Recovery to make a difference.”

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