ONE of my deepest impressions from 16 years of living and working in a European capital city is the number of people I knew there who suffered from depression.

Some were clinically depressed, absenting themselves from work for more than six months and even being admitted to the hospital. I returned to Singapore thinking: “Oh, it doesn’t happen here.”

Or does it?

In many of the cases I knew about then, the causes were mainly work-related, exacerbated by personal problems at home. Are Singaporeans more resilient to such pressures than the Europeans?

Local friends inform me that the problem does exist here, but people are not as open about it, perhaps because there is still a stigma attached to mental illnesses.

A recent incident on an MRT train set me thinking about mental health. One day, an attractive, well-dressed young woman, who sat not far from me, was earnestly talking to herself — no, she didn’t have any communication wires or gadgets attached anywhere on her person — complete with appropriate hand gestures.

She said out loud, repetitively over and over again during the journey: “What is the reason for your behaviour? What exactly is the reason for your actions?”

Naturally, there were silent, curious, then surprised stares from passengers around her. And I wondered what the woman was suffering from.

Besides being more aware of the early signs of mental illness, more importantly, everybody should ask themselves what they can do to prevent it in the first place.

My friends and ex-colleagues who suffered from depression shared certain common factors at their workplace: disappointed expectations, unsympathetic bosses and unsupportive colleagues.

It appeared that in almost every case, the situations that triggered crisis after crisis might have been prevented by the application of coping skills in the face of workplace pressures and the management of expectations, whether of performance rewards or of others’ behaviour.

Despite being given counselling, then medical therapy, almost all of the people I knew who were depressed ultimately stopped work completely. Only one of the seven returned to work, still under medication, but on the road to overcoming his problem with the help of strong religious faith and family support.

Preventive measures

Employers can avoid the loss of employees’ talent, skills and experience, or “human capital”, in several ways:

1. Training

While employer-support programmes are useful, these can only help after problems are detected. More helpful would be preventive measures in the form of training, for example, in coping skills and expectations management.

* Coping skills. Employers should ensure that their staff are trained to cope with workplace challenges either during orientation courses when they first join the organisation, or by their (appropriately trained) supervising managers at regular “one to one’s”.

The training could include personality type awareness and recognising the following cycle: workplace situations result in emotive responses that depend on personality as well as culture, which influence perceptions of work conditions, which in turn influence behaviour, which has consequences on workplace situations — and so it goes round again.

Learning about cognitive behavioural techniques such as attributions (explanations of causes for events or behaviour of others) and appraisals (the relationship between judgement of situations and reactive emotions) would be useful as well.

* Managing expectations. Employers need to carefully balance motivating employees with the prospect of rewards, monetary or otherwise. Terms like “unfair”, “biased”, “favouritism”, “management doesn’t care”, “all talk, no action” and so on, often pepper accounts by the depressed of how they had been treated at work.

This perceived “effort-reward imbalance” can be damaging. Prepare new recruits through case studies that introduce the concept of senior management constraints. Supervisors can ask new hires to role-play. “Put yourself in the boss’s shoes — how would you decide about the reward distribution (or decisions about whom to promote) if you were him and had this challenge?”

Encourage employees to set realistic goals and work with their supervisors on a plan to achieve them. Time management courses are useful to help employees prioritise their tasks. Undue stress can result from over-ambitious targets.

Management should also examine the corporate culture for possible “trigger” points. Are employees earning “brownie points” for working very long hours?

Is “face time” more important than working effectively?

2. Working well with others

Employees can be trained to look at interactions with colleagues from perspectives other than their own. Awareness of cultural and personality differences also helps to prevent misunderstandings.

3. Supportive resources

Coping skills training needs to go hand in hand with the availability of supportive resources such as professional counselling and trained staff to handle harassment cases without prejudice.

Those in management positions should be trained in event interpretation, reassuring performance, clarifying job demands and expectations, and providing additional resources where needed.

If organisations value their employees whom they have so carefully selected to join them, and in whom they have invested so much, it makes sense to retain them by ensuring their well-being and personal effectiveness.