New study finds female managers are more sympathetic to depression at work

A new study has found that female managers are much less likely than male managers to have negative attitudes toward depression at work.

A new study from Sweden has found that female managers are less likely than male managers to have negative attitudes toward depression at work.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Gothenburg, and appeared in the journal BMC Public Health.

The authors say their study is the first to investigate gender in managers’ attitudes towards workplace depression.

Their work also reflects the growing academic focus on mental health issues in the workplace.

Managers’ view of depression at work

The study’s 2,663 office work participants (1,762 men and 901 women) were managers at a wide range of organizations and companies in Sweden, both private and governmental.

The sample group included managers with varying degrees of seniority, whose titles including managing director, operations manager, and finance manager.

For the study, they answered an online questionnaire (the MSED, “managerial stigma towards employee depression”).

This questionnaire asked them to respond to a series of twelve statements related to depression at work.

The managers indicated how strongly they agree with each statement, on a scale of one to six.

Examples of the twelve statements included “Staff members with depression are a burden for the workplace,” “Staff members taking antidepressant medication should not be working,” “Staff members with depression can get over their depression if they just want to,” “I would avoid talking to a staff member who has depression so that I don’t have to deal with the person’s problems,” and “I would not hire someone who I knew had been depressed.”

The researchers classified scores of 12 – 35 as a “low negative attitude” towards employee depression.

They classified scores of 36 and up as “high negative attitude.” 

Male managers more dismissive of workplace depression

The study found that twice as many male managers as female managers had a “high negative attitude” towards employees being depressed at work.

For the male managers, the figure was 24% (429 out of 1,762), versus only 12% for the female managers (110 out of 901).

The male responses were significantly more negative than the female responses on 11 of the questionnaire’s 12 statements.

The only statement without a significant difference between the male and female managers’ responses was “It is stressful to work with staff members who have depression.”

These differences remained even after the researchers statistically controlled for a wide range of factors.

These included the type of workplace, the age and education of the manager, the distribution of women and men on the staff, and the extent of the manager’s leadership experience.

The study also found that the more experience the managers had with depressed co-workers, the more these negative attitudes softened.

Possible explanations for these gender differences

One explanation for these findings is that the prevalence of depression tends to be higher for women than for men.

This might result in women having more personal experience of depression.

And that in turn might lead to women being more tolerant of depression in general.

Previous research has also found that men are less open-minded towards people with mental illness.

For example, the authors write, the finding that female managers were less likely to report having negative attitudes towards employee depression may be because “women are socialized into espousing empathy to a higher extent than men.” Likewise, the authors refer to prior research showing that “women are subject to much stronger expectations than men that they will behave altruistically,” and may be more concerned about “backlash effects from violating these stereotypes.”

Possible limitations

The researchers point out 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 might have answered according to what is socially acceptable,” the authors write, “due to embarrassment or discomfort about revealing true attitudes.” The researchers suggest that future studies on this topic also incorporate employees’ estimations of their managers’ attitudes.

Also, this study focuses on managers in Sweden, and studies in other countries might yield different results.

But, the authors point out, Sweden is known for its emphasis on gender equality.

And as such, the gender differences in terms of negative attitudes towards employees with depression might be even stronger in other countries that have less gender equality.

Depression at work is bad for business

This study also highlights what the authors refer to as “the lower perceived legitimacy of psychological disabilities” in comparison to physical disabilities, which managers are more likely to accommodate.

And that’s a growing problem, as past research has linked depression to decreased work performance and greater absenteeism.

A recent McKinsey report refers to research estimating the cost of major depressive disorder in the US at $210 billion.

That represents a 153% increase since 2000.

About half those costs were related to workplace absenteeism and “presenteeism” (which means means being at work but not working at full productivity).

In fact, a 20016 study of workplace depression in eight countries found the costs of presenteeism were five to ten times higher than absenteeism.

In the United States, these costs amounted to $5,524 per employee annually.

With depression on the rise globally, it would behoove managers to take depression at the workplace more seriously.

The authors of the present study propose that managerial training programs should take into account the fact that male and female managers have different attitudes towards this issue.

With that in mind, they suggest, perhaps male and female managers should follow different training programs. 

Smart recovery: interventions to decrease workplace depression seem to work

Fortunately, research has found various ways of alleviating employee depression.

A 2018 review of 22 previous studies found that interventions combining several different therapeutic approaches have the best results.

Specifically, workplace interventions that combined cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with “coping flexibility” had the strongest effect.

Likewise, the interventions that took place in a group format showed the lowest attrition rates.

In general, the study found that “most” of the studied interventions reduced employees’ depression levels.

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 Hensing
Published in: BMC Public Health
Publication date: November 19, 2020
DOI: 10.1186/s12889-020-09848-2 
Photo: by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels