PORTLAND — Mary Allen Lindemann, co-owner of Portland’s Coffee By Design, has a message for employees struggling with mental health issues: You have our support.

Lindemann, who offers her 45 staffers access to a mental health support program, is an advocate for greater workplace awareness of mental health issues, which experts say cost U.S. businesses billions of dollars in lost productivity annually.

She is speaking at a conference in Augusta today called “Depression in the Workplace: Costs and Solutions.”

Organized by MaineHealth, the state’s largest health care network, the conference is intended to raise awareness about the prevalence of depression in the workplace and its financial impact on business.

Speakers will also give tips on recognizing depression and suggest ways employers can help employees find treatment.

Experts say the conference comes at a time of increasing stress in the workplace. They say economic uncertainty, layoffs, pay cuts and increased workloads are conditions that can result in mental health problems, or exacerbate existing illnesses.

“Stress at work and at home triggers depression,” said Neil Korsen, medical director for MaineHealth’s Mental Health Integration program. “And people are more likely to be stressed if they feel they don’t have control.”

According to data cited by Alexandria, Va.-based advocacy group Mental Health America, psychological problems cost U.S. businesses $193 billion in lost earnings in 2002. Depression alone, the group says, costs employers $51 billion in absenteeism and lost productivity and $26 billion for treatment annually.

Korsen said depression is far more prevalent than most people think, affecting 10 to 20 percent of Americans at some point during their lives.

“If you are an employer that has 10 or more employees, statistically one of those has had depression,” he said.

A family doctor, Korsen said he will typically see one to three patients daily with symptoms of depression, which can include feelings of sadness and worthlessness, loss of pleasure in life, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, weight changes and physical ailments, such as chronic pains.

Those symptoms, he said, affect on-the-job performance: Depressed employees are less productive and are more likely to take sick days and use long-term disability benefits. They also tend to work slower than their colleagues, make more errors and are prone to procrastination.

“If you are feeling badly, (then) cognitively you are not at your best. It is going to make it harder to do your work, no matter what your work is,” Korsen said.

John Benoit, president of Employee Benefits Solutions, a Portland consulting and insurance brokerage firm, said the conditions that accompany depression, such as back pain, also drive up employers’ health care and pharmaceutical costs.

Korsen said employers should watch for signs of depression in workers, such as increased irritability or more absences.

Employers can help staff by providing information about depression. Korsen said employers also can steer employees toward employee assistance programs, which are increasingly common and give staffers access to professionals trained to provide mental health and other assistance.

At today’s event, Lindemann will discuss her efforts to make Coffee By Design, which now has four shops, into what she calls a “mental health friendly” employer.

Her involvement in the issue dates to the mid-1990s, shortly after she and her husband opened their first coffee shop, on Congress Street.

Initially, Lindemann and her staff struggled with how to interact with mentally ill customers. She wanted to maintain a welcoming environment while ensuring the safety of her employees and customers.

Lindemann turned to the Department of Health and Human Services, which provided employee training.

She has also seen mental health issues affect employees. One staffer left work for mental health treatment, and twice employees have coped with the deaths of colleagues.

Lindemann now offers workers an employee assistance program, which is included as part of a low-cost insurance plan.

“If we take care of one another (and) address mental health concerns before they become a crisis … the financial cost in the long run is less,” she said. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Jon Hemmerdinger can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]