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

September 25, 2007

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 September 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."
(JAMA. 2007;298(12):1401-1411. Available pre-embargo to the media at

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

Editorial: Reducing the Burden of Depression

In an accompanying editorial, Kenneth B. Wells, M.D., M.P.H., and Jeanne Miranda, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles, comment on the challenge of treating depression.

"Exactly how programs to improve depression care are implemented may affect the distribution of benefits--an important issue given evidence of disparities in quality of depression care and the potential for practice-based programs to overcome disparities in depression outcomes. Developers of interventions and policies should consider implications of their design for inclusion of underserved groups who may not seek behavioral health care. Despite the extensive efforts by Wang et al to reach general employees, the majority of persons had already inquired about outpatient care. Learning how to optimize personal and societal gains by improving access to quality depression care across diverse communities through employer, practice, and community-based programs and policy changes is a next agenda for evidence-based action. As a community participant in the Witness for Wellness program recently stated: 'Depression is everybody's business.'"

(JAMA. 2007;298(12):1451-1453. Available pre-embargo to the media at

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

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