Work-focused CBT can help depressed employees remain on the job

A new review by the Institute for Work and Health has found that while generic cognitive behavioural therapy can help employees with symptoms of depression remain at work, it doesn’t have an effect on helping them return to their jobs.

The review found, however, that work-focused cognitive behavioural therapy can help depressed employees both stay at work and return to their jobs after being absent due to depression.

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“CBT teaches people strategies and skills to address the problems that come up in the here and now,” said Dr. Kim Cullen, an associate scientist at the Institute for Work and Health and a co-lead on the study, in a news release.

The institute describes the work-focused approach as using the same technique as general cognitive behavioural therapy — identifying, questioning and changing the thoughts, feelings and beliefs related to the troublesome emotional and behavioural reactions — but with a focus on the issues that present themselves in the workplace.

“For example, workers currently on leave due to depression may feel particularly anxious about certain aspects of their jobs when contemplating returning to work,” said Cullen.

“If so, they may benefit from a counselling approach that helps them examine their self-talk and thought patterns around those challenging tasks. In time, these individuals may find themselves more capable of managing their feelings around those job elements when they arise.”

In conducting its review, the institute included 27 studies from Canada, the United States and the Netherlands, with 18 of them examining cognitive behavioural therapy.

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The institute found no research that focused on interventions dealing with factors on an organizational level, such as job stressors, social supports at work and accommodations in the workplace. The research team did a consultation as a result, surveying and interviewing human resources and disability management professionals, as well as occupational health and safety practitioners, to discover what support they offer depressed employees. The research also included a survey of workers about the support they did or didn’t receive for their depression in the workplace.

With the research complete, the institute has produced a guide with strategies to support employees suffering from depression that it hopes may be of use to employees, employers, managers, human resources practitioners and union representatives. They include being mindful to prevent stigma and ensuring caring and genuine communication in the workplace.

“We have drawn upon the best research evidence and integrated it with both practitioner expertise and stakeholder values and preferences,” said Dr. Dwayne Van Eerd, project co-lead and scientist at the Institute for Work and Health.

“We hope this helps bridge the research-to-practice gap and the research-to-policy gap that currently exist for depression-related disability management programs.”

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