“Because most suicides do not happen at work, many employers do not consider depression or suicide an industry problem or occupational hazard.”  — Stu Kemppairnen

When we were younger, my wife really enjoyed napping in the afternoon. I didn’t get it. There was so much to do, how could anyone take prime “getting things done” hours and spend them sleeping?

I’ve matured. I now appreciate the pleasures of an afternoon nap and understand what my wife knew decades before I did.

Depression is similar. Not that there is any pleasure to be found in depression, but it is hard to understand depression until you confront it personally.

The Impact of Depression on Process Safety

One of the most common types of errors is a lapse, an error that occurs at random, when someone knows what they are supposed to do, is able to do what they are supposed to do, wants to do what they are supposed to do, but doesn’t. Lapses differ from mistakes, where someone doesn’t know what to do, and violations, where someone deliberately decides to do something other than what they are supposed to do.

Depression turns a lapse on its head. A person may no longer know what they are supposed to do, may no longer be motivated to do what they are supposed to do, or if motivated, may no longer be able to do what they are supposed to do as quickly or as well as normal.

The immediate impact of depression in most work situations is a loss of productivity. In chemical operations, however, process safety depends on personnel avoiding the creation of hazardous conditions and recognizing hazardous conditions when they occur and then responding appropriately. Alarms help with recognizing some hazards and some responses are automated, but process safety ultimately depends on people.

The long-term impact of depression can be just as disastrous. Left unrecognized or untreated, depression can lead to self-medication and ultimately, to suicide. These can have a profound impact on an organization, not least of which is the loss of that talent and experience.

Fatigue is Not Necessarily Depression

One of the symptoms of depression is fatigue—the lack of energy and motivation. It is different from drowsiness. In addition to a lack of energy and motivation to begin both physical and mental tasks, fatigue can cause a person to tire easily once they’ve started. It also causes difficulty with concentration and memory.

While fatigue can be a symptom of depression, it can also be a symptom of many other conditions, including

  • Allergies and hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
  • Anemia
  • Diabetes
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Heart disease
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Infection, including flu, mononucleosis, Covid-19, and pneumonia
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Sleep disorders

It can also be a normal response to unusual levels of activity.

The treatment for each of these is different. Most people who are suffering from fatigue and the resulting problems with lack of energy, poor motivation, loss of concentration and memory would rather find out that a physical ailment is the cause than confront the possibility that it is depression. After all, no one is accused of lack of viral toughness, while too many are willing to call out depression as a lack of mental toughness.

Medication and Self-Medication

Different authors quote different statistics, but at any given time, somewhere between 5% and 20% of workers are suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions. The Covid-19 pandemic has served to intensify this, although it is still too early to quantify the extent.

Recovery is not a matter of willpower. Nor is it a matter of self-medication. Unfortunately, the treatments that help—therapy and psychotropic medication under the supervision of a doctor—are often a source of embarrassment or shame.

Particularly vulnerable are men between the ages of 25 and 54 in male-dominated work environments. It’s not that they are more likely to suffer depression. It’s that they are more likely to ignore it, fearing that acknowledging the condition will be seen by their peers or supervisors as a sign of weakness.

Worse, they may choose to treat it themselves, in an effort to keep their depression secret. Iron tablets, for a self-diagnosis of anemia, are available over the counter. Caffeine is readily available and often supplied by the employer. Alcohol is also readily available (although actively prohibited by employers, at least on the job).

Reliance on self-medication does not help, and in most cases, stands as another obstacle to treatments that do help. In the construction industry, with 90% of its workers in the vulnerable demographic of men between the ages of 25 and 54, suicide is the leading cause of death, exceeding all other causes of death for construction workers combined. Not on the job, which explains why OSHA’s statistics don’t reflect this, but as a cause of death for people in that occupation.

Let’s Eliminate the Stigma of Depression

Just as no one sets out to be nearsighted or to have a stroke, no one sets out to suffer from depression or any other mental health condition. While no one will be faulted for vision correction or rehab after surviving a stroke, we often are not as generous as we consider depression or other mental health conditions. We want others, and ourselves, to “snap out of it.” But it doesn’t work that way and our general approach to mental health is exposing us—especially those of us in the chemical process industries, where our own safety depends as much on the actions of others as on our own—to greater risk of catastrophic incidents.

We need to change our approach. This is going to happen one person, one workplace, at a time. Be the next. We’ll all be better for it.