New tool strives to create healthier workplaces by predicting and preventing employee depression

By MJ Deschamps

It was in a paediatrician’s office following the birth of his daughter that Dr. JianLi Wang was first inspired to develop a tool that could predict people’s risk of developing depression.

It may seem like a peculiar jump to action, but for Dr. Wang, a mental health researcher, it dawned on him that while we engage in countless check-ups and tests related to our physical health over the course of our lives (starting from birth) to prevent us from getting sick, the same strategies are not in place when it comes to mental illness.

“When my daughter was born, follow-ups with our family doctor let us know whether things like her height and weight were on track, and whether she was growing in a normal way,” said Dr. Wang.

“It made me realize that while we engage in similar tests as adults to see if we are at risk for things like heart disease or diabetes, there isn’t a parallel way to evaluate our personal risk for depression.”

In 2008, through a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant, Dr. Wang developed the first-ever risk calculator of its kind in Canada, which estimates personal probability of having a major depressive episode in the next four years, by asking questions related to age, family history, ongoing negative life events and childhood trauma.

The tool also informs people how their level of risk compares to the general Canadian population.

The risk calculator was launched online in 2013, and has since been used over 80,000 times.

Now, as director of the new Work and Mental Health Research Unit at The Royal’s Institute of Mental Health Research, affiliated with the University of Ottawa, Dr. Wang has been working on adapting his risk calculator tool for organizational use.

This new tool tailored for employers includes predictors of depression as they relate to the workplace, such as job stress, work/family conflicts, and job performance. By enabling employers to evaluate how many of their employees will have depressive and anxiety disorders in the coming years, said Dr. Wang, organizations could better ensure that the right policies and resources are in place to keep workers healthy.

As it stands, mental illness – and depression in particular – has a major impact on the Canadian workforce and economy.

Each week, 500,000 Canadians do not go to work due to mental health-related issues.

Dr. Wang said the huge financial and social burden and level of lost productivity that mental illness continues to impose for workplaces is finally causing employers to sit up and take notice.

“When I started doing research in this area 15 years ago, there were no employers talking about the mental health issues in their workplaces,” he said.

“Now, more and more organizations are witnessing and acknowledging significant depression and anxiety amongst their employees, and are beginning to take action to implement strategies to help keep their workforce well.”

Dr. Wang is currently in the preliminary stages of launching a demonstration study using his risk calculator at a large Ottawa-based organization.

In addition to the benefits it can offer both employers and individuals, Dr. Wang hopes that future iterations of his risk calculator could have wider policy implications, as well.

On a larger scale, he said, this sort of information could help with population health planning, by forecasting mental health trends across cities, provinces and/or nationally, and allocating sufficient resources accordingly.

Overall, said Dr. Wang, research and strategies related to the prevention of depression and other related mental illnesses must continue to move to the forefront of our mental health care landscape.

“When it comes to mental health, the problem is that we are almost always reactive – people wait until they become depressed to see a doctor and get treated,” he said.

“However, prevention can be worth much more than treatment.”

MJ Deschamps works in communications at The Royal