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The Great Depression.

An alarming survey of more than 400 HR managers finds that depression among employees is rampant in the American business community. More alarming, 56 percent of the managers surveyed said depression had exerted a negative effect on productivity at their companies in the last three years. Most alarming, at many firms depressed employees are not getting the help they need to sort out their problems.

The survey was jointly conducted in July 1999 by the universally admired Society for Resource Management and the esteemed National Foundation for Brain Research. Faxed to 2,300 companies, the survey netted 406 responses from HR managers. It found that two-thirds of the companies surveyed had set up employee assistance programs that could help workers cope with their depression, while 98 percent offered health insurance plans that would cover treatment for mental illness. But in many cases, employees were reluctant to avail themselves of these remedies, doubtless fearing that some sort of stigma would be attached to them.

Looking on the bright side of things, the depression reported by these first-rate organizations does not seem to have had a devastating effect on the U.S. economy. Compared to stagnant economies like those in Eastern Europe, the U.S. economy seems to be moving along at a pretty nice clip. This would seem to suggest that while some American workers are suffering from depression - and thus being less productive - an enormous number of workers in foreign countries are getting nothing done because of severe depression, caused in part by having to hive in places like Eastern Europe.

Still, any negative impact on domestic productivity should concern us all, which begs the question: How valid is this survey? How rigorous was its underlying methodology? If only 406 HR managers out of 2,300 bothered to respond to the faxed questionnaire, was the sample sufficiently large and varied to warrant its conclusions?

"No," says Avery Smithers, director of research at the Foundation for the Study of Studies, a Lake Tahoe-based research institute dedicated to the scientific evaluation of other research institutes' studies. "In a study this large, with a response rate way down in the 20 percent area, you have to go back and find out why the other 1,900 people who were faxed the survey didn't take the time to respond to it. Which is exactly what we did."

And what did they find? "Generally, we found that human resources managers were too depressed to respond to the survey asking them how depressed their employees were. In some cases, they were depressed because the level of depression at their companies was so great they didn't want to depress everybody else in America by reporting it. In other cases, they were depressed that they had to spend so much time filling out questionnaires about how depressed employees were when they were already up to their eyeballs in alligators. In still other cases, they were depressed because the media is always writing stories about how depressed U.S. rank-and-file employees are, but they never write about how depressed human resources managers are."

How depressed are H R managers? "Unbelievably depressed," replies Smithers. "In a 1997 study, 35,000 human resources managers from companies of varying sizes located all around the country were asked to rank the three things they most disliked about their jobs. No. 3 was their job title; they generally loathed the title 'HR manager,' vastly preferring the outmoded but less nebulous 'personnel manager.' No. 2 was having to tell employees they were being let go. But the overwhelming winner in this study - the thing that almost every personnel manager cited as the task he most despised - was having to fill out questionnaires asking how depressed his firm's employees were."

Why should this be the case? "Because there's really no way to answer that question," Smithers says. "Some employees are depressed because they have family problems. Others are depressed because their careers have plateaued. But an awful lot of employees are depressed because they're Phillies fans or because they honestly thought the Cubs had a shot to make the playoffs. These surveys tend to overlook factors such as on which day of the week you ask employees if they're depressed. If you ask them on a Monday, of course they're going to say they are. They had the Jets and six in the pool."

When asked if he had any other methodological quibbles with the study, Smithers replied: "Initially, we worried that the HR managers who did not respond to the survey were either congenitally upbeat human beings who were not comfortable with the subject of depression, or folks who probably hit the sauce pretty hard and never got around to filling out questionnaires. But in the end, we found that this was not the case. HR managers are so depressed they can't even bother to put new paper in the fax machine. So a lot of them never even got the survey."

Wrapping things up, Smithers was asked if he personally thought that American workers were generally depressed. "How the hell should I know, you nitwit?" he snapped, signaling that the interview was over. "I only work here. Now, where's my Prozac?"

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.
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Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Nov 1, 1999
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