Is workplace depression contagious?

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Depression is notorious for affecting engagement and performance in employees as well as physical health, and there have been many discussions about how to combat the illness.

But recently, two academics have published theories that depression can be contracted from others – and could even be caused by a 'microscopic infectious organism'.

According to new research conducted by Massey University’s School of Management, the low morale of a manager can ‘infect’ their workforce, rubbing off on staff and affecting their moods.

Researchers interviewed 179 leaders and 411 members of staff across 250 organisations. Depression was self-reported rather than being medically diagnosed.
The study found that leaders who were suffering with depression were more likely to have depressed employees.

The results of the research also showed that this trend continued among managers who displayed few or no depressive symptoms, as their employees were inclined to be happier in the workplace.

HRM spoke to Professor Jarrod Haar, who led the study, and he referred to this as the “contagion effect”.

“The ‘work depression’ construct isn’t at clinical depression levels, but we found that like a common cold, a leaders’ depression could be ‘transmitted’ to their followers,” he said. “Thus, those employees who work for a leader with higher levels of depression were more likely to also report higher levels of depression. We found that leaders who are depressed are also likely to perform poorly, and this also influences the followers’ depression.”

Haar had the following tips for employers:
  • Employers should be aware that leaders are likely to influence their staff detrimentally if they are suffering with work depression, so encourage leaders to be aware of their mental health. If they’re feeling down (they agree that they feel ‘depressed’, ‘gloomy’ or ‘miserable’) more often than not, they’re in danger of not only being depressed but also of performing poorly and of making their workers feel depressed.
  • Employers should also encourage mental health days, and allow employees to take a day or two off. This will allow the leader to recharge and enhance their performance, allowing their employees’ moods to normalise and reducing team-wide depression. Perhaps having the CEO or HR manager encourage leaders to be self-aware and take time out when they need to could help. Remember – this is not clinical depression, just a damaged state of mental health caused by workplace stress which stems from things like too many long hours and crazy deadlines.
But the research conducted at Massey University isn’t the only suggestion that workplace depression can be contracted from others.

A professor at Stony Brook University in the US has recently published his theory that depression is caused by a parasitic, bacterial or viral infection – and, if so, a vaccination to prevent its spreading could be developed.

Dr. Turhan Canli wrote in a recent edition of Biology of Mood and Anxiety Disorders that “it is time for an entirely different approach.”

He claimed that his theory was based on the fact that sufferers of depression “exhibit sickness behaviour.”

“Nature has already provided examples by which parasites, bacteria, or viruses can affect emotional behaviour,” he added. “The best-known example of a parasite that affects emotional behavior and that is relevant to human health is Toxoplasma gondii.”

He continued that this parasite is known to influence animal behaviour – and it is capable of infecting all warm-blooded animals. In fact, one-third of the world’s population is believed to be infected by this organism.

So could depression be caused by a similar being that countless people are unknowingly infected with?

“I propose that future research should conduct a concerted search for parasites, bacteria, or viruses that may play a causal role in the etiology of major depression,” Canli wrote. “Instead of conceptualising major depression as an emotional disorder, I suggest to re-conceptualise it as some form of an infectious disease.”

He also argued that depression patients also show inflammation in their brains, which could indicate the immune system is responding to an infection – and this inflammation could trigger the symptoms of depression.

Canli suggested that studies should be conducted to investigate his theory.

“Such efforts, if successful, would represent the ‘end of the beginning’,” he said. “Any such discovery would represent the first step toward developing a vaccination for major depression.”

HRM asked Haar whether he believed that Canli’s theory is feasible.

“If he is right, then what causes the infection?” Haar said. “I’d suggest it will be partly from the stressors of work – workload, timeframes and so on. So organisations wouldn’t be in a position to argue: ‘well, you caught depression over the weekend – it’s nothing to do with us!’”

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