Work can help treat depression - here's why

07 March 2018 -

StressedemployeeAs the USA announces that its healthcare benefit would require unwell employees to take part in work projects, Insights explores research that says work can help people overcome mental health problems

By Jermaine Haughton

A controversial policy set by the Donald Trump administration aims to help poor Americans back into work and out of poverty by encouraging childless adults without disabilities participate in “community engagement activities” to obtain Medicaid – the main provider of US health care for the poor.

It is partly based on research that working can make some people healthier.

Three health benefits of work

Work provides a daily structure

Waking up early, getting ready, commuting and clocking in at work are key daily activities that provide focus and order to employees struggling with depression, studies show. One study, published in the journal Occupational Medicine, assessed 555 people who had been signed off work for more than 12 weeks because of depression. After 13 weeks off, 169 had returned to work part-time and 51 went back full-time. After 20 weeks, 75 had gone back part-time and 256 were working full-time.

Adding some flexibility to the working schedule can also help ease employees back into the working routine. Dr Gordon Parker, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine, said: "A return to employment significantly promoted recovery. Importantly, it was the approach and flexibility of their employers that proved vital.” After six months off work for depression, BT employee Richard Craig enjoyed reduced hours for the first two weeks of his return and saw them increased gradually each week until he was back into normal full-time hours.

Work provides support from teammates

Developing a trusting, reliable and close-knit team can provide a comforting and relaxing environment for employees recover from mental health issues. In fact, socialising with your friends at work can help staff relieve their stress and stay in work, Emer O’Neill, chief executive of Depression Alliance explained. “Being able to talk about depression makes other people aware that it is a hard condition, and having support makes people less likely to relapse,” she said.

The open promotion of mental health awareness is a key part of managing a tolerant and supportive workforce. Multinational auditor EY operates the “r u ok?” programme, which raises awareness about mental health, provides educational tools for staff and helps employees seek the help they need. A core part of the initiative is encouraging employees to not be judgemental of colleagues struggling with mental illness and addictions.

Insights has previously explored how managers can protect the mental health of their employees.

Read more: how managers can protect the mental health of their employees