One in five working women has depression or anxiety
November 15, 2004
By ALLISON DUNFIELD, Globe and Mail

One in five working women have experienced clinical depression or anxiety, a new survey released Monday found--causing them to avoid seeking promotions, to feel overwhelmed at the office, or even to quit their job.

"For the working women that were surveyed, depression and anxiety were very prevalent. More so perhaps than in the general population – which certainly indicates a very strong need to address mental health issues in the workplace," Penny Marrett, chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association, told globeandmail.com.

She said this is some of the latest research that has seen the importance of providing support to anyone dealing with mental illness in the workplace.

Researchers from Léger Marketing, in conjunction with the Canadian Mental Health Association, conducted the survey, which was based on telephone interviews with 1,508 women across Canada over 18 who were experiencing anxiety or depression. These women had already been diagnosed with one of the two afflictions or had met the diagnostic criteria for having one or both of the conditions. Dr. Sidney Kennedy, a psychiatrist with the University Health Network, told globeandmail.com that the figures in Monday's survey – indicating that about 20 per cent of women in the workplace suffer from depression – are almost double those of the general population.

In some of the more sobering results, 23 per cent of the women suffering from depression or anxiety quit their jobs, and another 21 per cent had to take disability leave at some point in their careers as a result of their mental illness.

Of those who stayed on the job, three quarters said they felt completely overwhelmed at work and more than half (58 per cent) said their state left them unmotivated to get things done.

Dr. Kennedy said that employers should be aware of the cost, both financial and otherwise, of something called "presenteeism" – workers who stay at the job but who are suffering from mental-health issues and are "functioning at a markedly reduced level."

They may have fatigue, a lack of energy or a lack of motivation, he said.

Dr. Kennedy said generally, women are better at talking about their mental health issues and asking for assistance.

The survey echoed that sentiment, showing that of working women surveyed, most (81 per cent) are seeking help.

"Generally, they are getting better, and they are seeing improvements at work as a result. The challenge, of course, is those that are not seeking help," Ms. Marrett said.

About 73 per cent felt that their a mental illness affected their productivity.

Just fewer than half the women knew of employee assistance programs that could help them at work, and about one in five took advantage of these programs. When they did, most were happy with the services provided, the report found.

Ms. Marrett said that there is a definite need for more awareness of Employee Assistance Programs.

The survey also asked women how the workplace could be improved.

They made a wide variety of suggestions, from providing counsellors at work, to allowing more paid time off, to reducing workload. One of the major suggestions, Ms. Marrett said, was to make both workers and their bosses more aware of the existence of programs such as Employee Assistance or other counselling programs that are available.

"It's clear to the Canadian Mental Health Association that many employers are struggling to address mental-health concerns in the workplace. We can't forget that depression and anxiety are illnesses. They need to be viewed just like any other health condition ... it's very important we recognize that.

"Employers must begin to address the whole spectrum of mental health concerns their employees have."

Another, larger study conducted in 2002 by Statistics Canada, the Canadian Community Health Survey, found that women are more likely to suffer from mood and anxiety disorders than men, while men are more likely to suffer from dependence on drugs and alcohol.

That study, of about 37,000 people across Canada, found that 5.5 per cent of women suffered from major depression, compared with 3.4 per cent of men. In terms of anxiety, 5.8 per cent of women suffered from some sort of anxiety disorder such as panic disorder, while 3.6 per cent of men were affected.

Monday's Leger study, patterned after a similar study done in the United States last year, also found that female employees said that they were least likely to go to a boss for help.

They were most likely to turn to a friend, a family member, or, to a lesser extent, a colleague, "indicating there is a reluctance to address these issues in the workplace."

It found that women who experienced depression were more affected by it than by other major stressors in their life such as raising children or caring for elderly parents. The survey found that depression, more than other stresses women face, were "significant barriers to success."

Ms. Marrett said one of the other significant findings was that three-quarters o the women believed they could return to being symptom-free with treatment.

The study found once these women achieved remission, 86 per cent said they were more motivated, 64 per cent took on more work, and 40 per cent sought promotions – to name just a few of the workplace changes women reported once their mental-health problems were under control.