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Improving the stigma of depression in the workplace

Improving the stigma of depression in the workplace

Depression is estimated to affect 1 in 4 people and has recently overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of disability.1 Within the workplace, studies have found that depression has the largest impact on an employee’s work performance, as employees typically experience fatigue, poor concentration, and reduced decision-making capacity.2 These symptoms increase absenteeism behaviours and reduce overall productivity, thereby substantially reducing an employee's ability to work.3 Without proper intervention, this impact can worsen. In fact, an increased severity of depression can result in an additional 1.65% loss of an employee’s productivity.4


The treatment gap

Targeted organisational interventions and treatments have been successful in improving employee wellbeing, increasing productivity by 8.2%, and reducing absenteeism by 28.4%.5 However, employees are reluctant to disclose their condition because of self- or other stigma.6 One survey found that only about 30% of employees felt comfortable acknowledging and discussing depression with their supervisor.7 Of the group who were uncomfortable speaking to their manager or supervisor, 30% of them feared that discussing their wellbeing could lead to being fired or furloughed, and 20% feared it may cost them a promotion or new responsibilities in the workplace.8


For employees experiencing poor mental wellbeing, high work demands can often worsen existing mental health conditions . This is because behavioral symptoms of depression such as poor concentration, decreased motivation, restlessness, or irritability are likely to be attributed to an employee’s reduced effort or lack of commitment.9 Therefore, negative attitudes towards an individual start to form among their coworkers and their manager, damaging an individual’s reputation at the workplace.9


Research has shown that, when employee’s disclose their poor mental wellbeing to management, greater organisational accommodation and support are provided.5 However, disclosure of this information can sometimes produce stigmatising attitudes among managers and coworkers.9 These stigmatising attitudes are found to be stronger when the organisation lacks a mental health strategy.10


Organisational training for management

To combat stigmatising attitudes within an organisation, management should adopt and advocate organisational policies to support employee mental wellbeing. Boosting procedural knowledge and interpersonal skills are also essential to sensitively explore performance problems if employees have yet to disclose their depression diagnosis.9 Procedural knowledge such as mental health training aimed at mental health literacy—conceptual knowledge of mental illnesses and their effects and treatment. If their diagnosis has been disclosed, key interpersonal skills such as empathy and respect are imperative to guide employees to the appropriate mental health resources and services.


Investments in such training can be beneficial for organisations in the long run, as targeted interventions and supportive organisational climates can produce substantial economic gain. A study found that the annual monetary return, when investing in such interventions, is evaluated to be $1982 in improved productivity and $619 in reduced absenteeism per employee experiencing depression.5


Depression can affect anyone at any stage of their life. When seeking guidance, employees are often influenced by social and organisational climates. Organisations that do not provide adequate mental health support can perpetuate existing treatment gaps and impede employee recovery. To close the treatment gap, organisations should provide an environment that advocates and supports effective management of employees struggling with depression. These changes will not only benefit employee morale, but can reduce organisational productivity loss and costs as well.


1. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression

2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18617837/

3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12813119/

4. https://journals.lww.com/joem/Abstract/2013/03000/Patient_reported_Depression_Severity_Measured_by.5.aspx

5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1350979/

6. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/iops.12134

7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15643160/

8. https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2020/08/07/more-than-half-of-employees-are-afraid-to-discuss-their-mental-health-with-their-boss-new-data-shows/

9. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2014-14818-022

10. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/hrm.20370