A two-year program for depressed employees treated at 12 primary care practices nationwide improved productivity at work by an average of 6 percent, or an estimated annual value of $1,491 per depressed full-time employee.
The program reduced absenteeism by 22 percent in two years, saving the companies an estimated $539 for each depressed full-time employee.
The study published in the journal Medical Care is among the first research to "demonstrate that improving the quality of care for any chronic disease has positive consequences for productivity and absenteeism," say Kathryn Rost, Ph.D., of University of Colorado Health Sciences Center and colleagues.
"Over the short term, improvements in productivity generally benefit the majority of American employers who pay salaries rather than reimburse workers for piecework or by commission. And over the longer term, improvements in productivity may translate into employee raises," Rost explains.
The program included 326 full- or part-time blue-collar and white-collar workers who were diagnosed with depression at the start of the study. The workers were randomly assigned to receive either standard or "enhanced" depression treatment from specially trained primary care providers who encouraged workers to consider antidepressant medication and/or counseling.
Patients on the enhanced treatment plan were regularly contacted by a care manager who discussed their symptoms and provided extra information about depression treatment. The care manager also encouraged the patients to stick with their treatments and adjusted the treatments if necessary.
Rost and colleagues measured the effect of the two treatment regimes at six-, 12-, 18- and 24-month intervals during the study. They calculated productivity from patients' reports of their effectiveness at work and absenteeism as the total number of work hours lost due to illness or doctor visits.
Consistently employed patients benefited the most from the enhanced treatment, making the largest gains in productivity while reducing their rate of absenteeism and the severity of their depression, the researchers found.
The study was supported by the MacArthur Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the National Institutes of Mental Health.
(Disclosure: The Health Behavior News Service is a program of the Center for the Advancement of Health, which receives funding from the MacArthur Foundation.)