Workplace Depression Costs Still Stubbornly High

January 2, 2004 ( - The cost of workplace problems from depressed workers - factors such as absenteeism and lost productivity - were largely flat at $52 billion, from 1990 to 2000.

Questions remain about why the widespread treatment for depression hasn’t eased depression-related burdens on employers, said Ronald Kessler, a professor of health-care policy at Harvard Medical School who is co-author of a new study, according to the Wall Street Journal. Kessler has consulted for drug maker Eli Lilly, which helped fund the research.

One explanation is that the 1990s economic boom put more depressed people in the workplace, resulting in higher rates of lost productivity, according to the study. Yet Kessler also believes it is because “people are getting half-treated.”

This inadequate treatment, experts say, results in a phenomenon known as “presenteeism” in which people show up for work but are largely unproductive because they are depressed. This could stem from lack of follow-up by doctors, the high cost of continuing treatment, or the fact that many don’t like to see themselves as having chronic depression and drop out of treatment too soon.

Meanwhile, the study’s good news was that the cost of treating depression dropped during the 1990s on the back of a trend to give such patients medication instead of hospitalizing them. However, the bad news is that a sharp rise in the number of depressed Americans has forced treatment costs to skyrocket 31% to $26 billion during the same time period, according to a new study and reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, found that the rate of treatment for depression – the share of sufferers who got help – rose 56% during the 10-year span. However, annual costs per treated case fell to $3,300 in 2000, down almost 19% from the 1990 levels.