Depression :: Program for treating depression appears to improve work productivity, be cost-effective

Employees seeking treatment for depression who participated in a program that included a telephone outreach intervention had fewer symptoms, worked more hours and had greater job retention than participants receiving usual care, according to a study in the Sept. 26 issue of JAMA.

Depression has enormous societal burdens, with annual U.S. economic costs of tens of billions of dollars due largely to productivity losses. Comparative cost-of-illness studies show that depression is among the most costly of all health problems to employers, according to background information in the article.

Despite evidence that there are effective treatments, many depressed workers are untreated or inadequately treated. Employer-purchasers (those who purchase corporate health benefits) often do not invest in enhanced depression screening-treatment programs because of the uncertainty of the return-on-investment of such programs.

Philip S. Wang, M.D., Dr.P.H., of the National Institute of Mental Health, Rockville, Md., and colleagues examined the impact of a depression outreach-treatment program on the outcomes of depression symptom relief, job retention, sickness absence, and increased work productivity. The randomized controlled trial included 604 employees covered by a managed behavioral health plan who were identified in a 2-stage screening process as having significant depression. The telephonic outreach and care management program encouraged workers (n = 304) to enter outpatient treatment (psychotherapy and/or antidepressant medication), monitored treatment quality continuity, and attempted to improve treatment by giving recommendations to clinicians. Participants reluctant to enter treatment were offered a structured telephone cognitive behavioral psychotherapy. Three hundred participants received usual care.

The researchers found that measurements of depression severity were significantly lower in the intervention than in the usual care group by 6 months and at 12 months, and that patients in the intervention group were more likely to experience recovery (26.2 percent vs. 17.7 percent). Scores on the hours worked measure were significantly higher in the intervention than usual care group at 6 and 12 months. The data indicated that workers in the intervention group worked an average of two more hours per week than workers in the usual care group, which is equivalent to an annualized effect of more than two weeks of work. This overall effect was due to a higher rate of job retention (92.6 percent vs. 88.0 percent) and significantly more hours worked among employed respondents.

“The results suggest that enhanced depression care of workers has benefits not only on clinical outcomes but also on workplace outcomes,” the authors write. “The financial value of the latter to employers in terms of recovered hiring, training, and salary costs suggests that many employers would experience a positive return on investment from outreach and enhanced treatment of depressed workers.”

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