A new study from Sweden has found that female managers are less likely than male managers to have negative attitudes towards depression at work.
The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Gothenburg and was published in the journal BMC public health. The authors say their study is the first to examine gender in managers’ attitudes toward depression in the workplace. Their work also reflects the growing academic focus on mental health issues in the workplace.
Managers’ views on depression in the workplace
The study’s 2,663 participants in office work (1,762 men and 901 women ) have been managers in a variety of private and governmental organizations and companies in Sweden. The sample group included managers of varying seniority whose titles were managing director, operations manager, and finance manager.
For the study, they answered an online questionnaire (MSED, “Managerial Stigma to Employee Depression”). This questionnaire asked them to respond to a series of twelve statements about depression at work. Managers indicated how strongly they agreed with each statement on a scale of one to six.
Examples of the twelve statements were “Employees with depression are a burden on the job”, “Employees take antidepressant medication should not work”, “Employees with depression can overcome their depression if they want to”, “I would avoid talking to an employee who is depressed so that I don’t have to deal with the person’s problems,” and “I wouldn’t hire anyone I knew was depressed.”
Researchers ranked scores from 12 to 35 as “low negative attitudes” toward depression among employees. They classified scores of 36 and above as “high negative attitudes.”
Male managers tend to be negative about depression in the workplace
The study found that twice as many male managers as female managers had “very negative attitudes” towards depressed workers in the workplace. Among male executives, it was 24% (429 out of 1,762), compared to just 12% among female executives (110 out of 901). For 11 of the 12 statements in the questionnaire, male responses were significantly more negative than female responses. The only statement without a significant difference between the responses from male and female managers was “It’s stressful working with employees who suffer from depression.”
These differences persisted even after the researchers used a wide one range statistically controlled by factors. These included the type of job, the manager’s age and education, the gender balance in the workforce, and the manager’s level of leadership experience.
The study also found that the more experienced the manager had with depressed colleagues, the more these negative attitudes subsided.
Possible explanations for these gender differences
One explanation for these results is that the prevalence of depression tends to be higher for women than for men. This could lead to women having more personal experiences of depression. And that, in turn, could lead to women being generally more tolerant of depression. Previous research has also found that men are less receptive to people with mental illness.
For example, the authors write that female leaders may be less likely to report negative attitudes toward coworkers’ depression because “women tend to be more empathetic be socialized as men”. Likewise, the authors cite previous research showing that “women have much stronger expectations than men that they will behave altruistically” and may be more concerned about “backlash from violating these stereotypes”.
The researchers note that this study is based on a questionnaire and may not reflect how managers actually feel. For example, a social desirability bias may play a role. “Managers may have responded after what was socially acceptable,” the authors write, “out of embarrassment or discomfort at revealing true attitudes.” The researchers suggest that future studies on this topic also include employees’ assessments of their managers’ attitudes.
In addition, this study focuses on managers in Sweden, and studies in other countries may yield different results. However, the authors point out that Sweden is known for its emphasis on gender equality. And therefore, gender differences in negative attitudes towards workers with depression might be even larger in other countries where there is less gender equality.
Depression in the workplace is bad for business
This study also highlights what the authors describe as “the lower perceived legitimacy of mental disabilities” compared to physical disabilities, which managers tend to be probably record. And that’s a growing problem, as previous research has linked depression to decreased work performance and more absenteeism.
A new McKinsey report cites research that estimates the cost of major depression in the US at US$210 billion. That’s a 153% increase since 2000. About half of those costs were absenteeism and “presenteeism” (which means being at work but not at full productivity). In fact, a 20016 study of workplace depression in eight countries found that the cost of presenteeism is five to 10 times that of absenteeism. In the United States, these costs amounted to US$5,524 per employee per year.
As depression is on the rise around the world, managers should take workplace depression more seriously. The authors of the present study suggest that management training programs should take into account the fact that male and female managers have different attitudes towards this issue. With this in mind, they suggest that male and female managers should perhaps follow different training programs.
Smart recovery: Interventions to reduce workplace depression seem to work
Fortunately, research has found several ways to reduce depression in employees. A 2018 review of 22 previous studies found that interventions that combine several different therapeutic approaches produce the best outcomes. In particular, workplace interventions that combined cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with “coping flexibility” had the strongest effect. Likewise, the interventions that took place in the group format showed the lowest turnover rates. In general, the study found that “most” of the interventions examined reduced employees’ levels of depression.
Study: “Gender differences in managers’ attitudes towards employees with depression: a cross-sectional study in Sweden”Authors: Ilaria Mangerini, Monica Bertilsson , Angelique de Rijk and Gunnel HensingPublished in: BMC Public Health Published date: 19. November 2020DOI: 10.1186/s12889-020-09848-2 Photo: by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels