Undiagnosed emotional problems can affect work performance

Some new research from the US seems to show symptoms accompanying undiagnosed emotional problems can affect productivity at work.

 For example, cases of undiagnosed depression and anxiety can affect absenteeism or poor work performance through issues such as insomnia and emotional distress.

This research would tend to confirm my experience as a counsellor practising in the Hastings and St. Leonards area of East Sussex. I often find that the issues of panic, anxiety or depression which clients describe are affecting their performance at work.

The US study by researchers from the University at Albany SUNY discovered that although many adults do not have a formal psychiatric diagnosis, they still have mental health symptoms that interfere with full participation in the workforce.

The researchers suggest that interventions are needed to help employees who meet criteria for mental illness and for those with lower levels of symptoms.

Using combined data from three national databases, the researchers looked at the relationship between mental health symptoms and work-related outcomes — for example, being employed or number of work absences.

The analysis used a novel statistical modeling approach that captured the effects of mental health symptoms in individuals, whether or not they had clinically diagnosed psychiatric disorders.

The study focused on symptoms associated with four mental health conditions: major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, and panic attacks. For depression and anxiety, the model identified some specific symptoms as “crucial for labour market outcomes.”

For major depression, the factors with the greatest impact on work-related outcomes were insomnia and hypersomnia (sleeping too much), indecisiveness and severe emotional distress. For women with major depression, fatigue was an additional important symptom.

For generalized anxiety disorder, the duration of the episode of anxiety was the factor with the greatest impact on work-related outcomes.

Other important symptoms were difficulty controlling worry and emotional distress related to worry, anxiety or nervousness.

Further analysis suggested that significant numbers of people did not meet diagnostic criteria for depression or anxiety, yet still had similarly poor mental health as diagnosed individuals.

Depression symptoms had a greater impact on workforce participation than anxiety symptoms. Symptoms of panic attack and social phobia did not seem to have a significant impact on work outcomes.

The study comes at a time when some doctors and policymakers are increasingly sceptical about the usefulness of categorising psychiatric disorders.

Patients with mental health issues are usually treated according to their symptoms, rather than any diagnosis. Welfare programmes are also focusing less on diagnoses and more on individuals’ capacity for work.

The results of this study show that many people who don’t meet diagnostic criteria still have mental health symptoms that interfere with their work participation. From a research standpoint, the authors suggest that considering non-diagnosed people as “healthy” is likely to underestimate the true impact of mental health symptoms on workforce participation.

From a policy perspective, they write, “Interventions targeting workplace consequences of mental illness may benefit not only those who meet diagnostic criteria, but also many of these with subclinical levels of symptoms.”

Targeting the symptoms most strongly related to occupational outcomes — for example, sleep problems related to depression or episodes of anxiety that last a long time — might be especially helpful for improving work performance.

The authors commented that “Besides the afflicted individuals, employers also would potentially stand to gain from improved work functioning of those individuals.”

As a counsellor, I would endorse that conclusion: my primary professional aim must always be to help the individual with whom I am working, but I do know that often I am also helping them to perform better again at work.

 

added at 12:04am on 10th April 2014

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