Health care workers are not immune to psychosocial problems and often may face distinctive obstacles in dealing with them. Self-care among physicians, nurses, and other health care workers is not included as a part of their training but it is an issue that often comes up in the course of their daily routines or in their professional practice. The stresses of professional practice, shift work, and personal life can be quite demanding and in cases where the individual neglects or fails to notice the warning signs of depression can lead to tragic consequences. According to most available data there is an increased vulnerability for depression and suicide in health care workers, particularly physicians and nurses. Depression is a particular concern in the health care industry given that health care workers, especially physicians and nurses, are directly responsible for the well-being of their patients who are often forced to depend on them. When health care workers suffer from depression they also put the health and potentially the lives of other people at risk.
In 2007 The National Survey on Drug Use and Health published findings that indicated that there were high rates of depression in the personal care and health care industries relative to other professions between the years 2004-2006 ("The NSDUH Report"). Table I presents some of the comparison data from that study. As displayed in Table I the heath care industry had the third highest rate of depressive episodes (9.6%) behind personal care (e.g., caretakers) and the food service industry. As many of the personal care positions might also qualify as health care type functions, one could consider that all health care related positions combined most likely had nearly twice the incidence of depression than the seven percent average over all occupations for the years 2004 through 2006. When taken with the data concerning physician suicide, this would suggest that depression is a major concern in the health care industry.
Table I. Percentage of Major Depressive Episodes among Full-Time Workers Aged 18 to 64, by Occupational Categories: 2004-2006 Combined
Source: SAMHSA, 2004, 2005, and 2006 NSDUHs.
Moderate to high rates of depression have been observed in medical school students and nursing school programs (Levy, 144), as a result of overwork or working on different during different shifts, not feeling respected, and as a result of burnout (Felton, 240). Studies have found that health care professionals (medical doctors, midwives, and nurses) carry an elevated relative risk for developing affective disorders (Wieclaw et al., 316). Suicide rates for male physicians are 70% higher compared to men from other professions, whereas the rate of female physicians who commit suicide because of depression is between 250 to 400% higher compared to women in other professions (Levine and Bryant, 67-69). Often the risk for developing depression is related to certain job perceptions or experiences in these workers; however, there is some indication that there may be certain pre-disposing conditions in healthcare workers that may increase their risk for depression.
Predisposing Factors for Contracting Depression
There is a rich literature that has investigated predisposing factors for depression in physicians. Vaillant, Sobowale, and McArthur (372-375) reported evaluated students for psychological vulnerabilities while in college and followed up with them 30 years later to determine the effects of these vulnerabilities. Forty-seven of the students in the study became physicians. The results of the study indicated that the physicians, especially those involved in direct patient care, were more likely than matched controls to have depression, poor marriages, and substance abuse problems. However, a closer examination of the data revealed that the presence and severity of depression in the physicians was strongly associated with life issues that were present before attending medical school such as poor adjustment in childhood or adolescence and traits of dependency, pessimism, wishful thinking, and self doubt. In a later study McCranie and Brandsma (30-36) looked at personality antecedents of burnout among 440 physicians who had been given the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) before entering medical school. They were surveyed an average of 25 years later for symptoms of work-related burnout. The results indicated that higher burnout scores were significantly correlated with the earlier MMPI scales measuring poor self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, obsessive worry, passivity, and social anxiety.
The research concerning predisposing factors that might serve as markers or vulnerabilities for later depression in nurses and other health care workers is not as extensive as it is for physicians. However, Ohler, Kerr and Forbes (69) did find that a history of insecurity, poor self-worth, and social anxiety did predispose nurses to depression.
It is interesting there is also a gender effect for the risk to develop depression. Most of the research indicates that female physicians may be more prone to developing depression than male physicians (Miller and McGowen, 369); however, Wieclaw et al. (318) found that male nurses may have higher risks for developing depression than female nurses. In any event the research indicates that there may be certain predisposing variables that can lead to a greater risk of developing depression in some health care workers. Gender, early problems with self-esteem, insecurity, and social withdrawal may leave some individuals more vulnerable to developing depression than others. In addition, perfectionism and perceived locus of control (whether or not one believes that they have control over their circumstances) have also been implicated as potential risk factors for depression (Miller and McGowen, 368).
Situational Factors Contributing to Depression
Personal factors such as marital issues and family issues can contribute to depression but will not be the focus here. The research on specific situational or job-related factors that contribute to depression in health care workers is far more extensive than the literature on predisposing psychological factors. Traditionally health care workers experience heavy workloads and extensive responsibilities, often must care for unstable patients, and react to extremely urgent matters. There are many times when the range of decisions health care workers can make at work is highly restricted. These working conditions can lead to high job stress, especially when dealing with patients that have serious or life-threatening medical issues. According to the demand-control models certain jobs, such as healthcare jobs, that combine high demands with low perceived personal control can induce high levels of psychological and physical distress (Glazer, 10-13). Prolonged stressful working conditions eventually may deplete a person's emotional resources leading to the burnout syndrome (Bourbonnais, Comeau and Vezina, 97). Burnout can also occur as a result of working too many hours or can result from prolonged night shift work and poor personal sleeping habits (Scott, Monk, and Brink, S2). In addition, job burnout leading to depression can be the result of a perceived lack of control over the work environment or a perceived lack of respect from coworkers or superiors (Glazer, 10). Nurses and other non-physician health care workers are particularly vulnerable to depression related to job burnout as they often work long shifts, have a high patient load, deal with stressful issues, and perceive a lack of respect from supervising physicians. Medical interns and residents who work long hours and can also be harshly treated by supervisors and be vulnerable to burnout. The perceived lack of organizational support and involvement can greatly affect job satisfaction for all health care workers contributing to psychological exhaustion, increased stress, and depression.
The Effects of Depression on Work Performance.
It has been long established that depression is costly in terms of increased absenteeism and poor productivity (Bender and Farvolden, 74). The effects of depression as it relates to health care workers is of particular concern given the nature of the work. Presenteeism, or working while sick (in this case working while clinically depressed), is a major concern, as most individuals experiencing depressive symptoms are working. Depressed workers experience broad impairments in many workplace functions and have a 4.2 fold increase in impaired work performance which is equivalent to 5 hours of lost work per week (Stewart et al., 3140). For example, depressed nurses have been found to make more medication errors, more equipment errors, a higher rate of on-the-job accidents, were more likely not to finish routine tasks, and had significantly lower patient satisfaction scores (McGowan, 33-38). Depressed physicians make significantly more diagnostic errors, make more mistakes, show less interest in patient care, and have lower patient satisfaction scores (Tennant, 700).
Recognizing and Preventing Depression
The individual health care worker, managers, and coworkers should be on the lookout for the following symptoms in themselves and others as they relate to depression: 1) a loss of interest in activities both work related and personal activities; 2) feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness; 3) decreased energy or fatigue; 4) sleep disturbances (insomnia, early-morning waking, or oversleeping); 5) irritability; 6) loss of appetite and weight, or weight gain; 7) excessive crying; 8) difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions; and of course 9) thoughts of death or suicide. In the workplace, symptoms of depression also often may be recognized by: 1) decreased productivity; 2) problems with morale; 3) a lack of cooperation; 4) increased occurrence…