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Male Managers Hold Greater Stigmas Against Workplace Depression, Study Says

male manager ignoring depressed coworker

Verywell / Catherine Song

Key Takeaways

  • A Swedish study on more than 2,600 people found that male managers hold greater stigmas against workplace depression than their female counterparts.
  • Depression is a relatively common mental health condition, affecting around 16 million Americans every year.
  • If you have a supportive and empathetic employer, you may consider talking to them about your depression and exploring ways to find support at work.

Dealing with depression can make it tough to get through the workday. While some workplaces offer mental health support and accommodations to staff, finding empathy from your manager may come down to their gender, according to a new report from Sweden published in BMJ Public Health.

The researchers asked more than 2,600 managers how they felt about employees with depression. The findings showed that men had a higher degree of stigma against the mental health condition than women. More women than men also said they’d be willing to make temporary adjustments to the workplace to help a staff member recover from depression. 

The findings show that there’s still a lot of work for businesses to do to reduce stigmas against workplace depression, especially among male managers. Here’s what the research shows about managers’ views on depression and how to talk to your boss about a mental health concern.

Stigmas Against Workplace Depression by Gender

The study looked at how managers of different genders in Sweden felt about workplace depression. The study involved a total of 2,663 managers, comprised of 1,762 men and 901 women of diverse ages, educational achievement, work sectors, career experience, history of managing employees with depression, and other factors.

Researchers from the University of Gothenburg sent the managers an online questionnaire that included a series of statements addressing their affective attitudes, cognitive attitudes, and behavioral attitudes related to stigmas against workplace depression. Some examples of the statements included, “it is stressful to work with staff members who have depression” and “staff members with depression can get over their depression if they just want to.”

The participants were asked to provide a score of up to six points based on how they felt about each statement, with "strongly disagree" a one and "strongly agree" a six. After adjusting for covariates, researchers found that male managers were much more likely than female managers to hold high stigma against workplace depression, as defined by a score of at least 36 on the questionnaire.

Overall, female managers were between 43-61% less likely to have negative attitudes toward workplace depression than men. 

Why Men Had More Negative Views Against Workplace Depression

There’s no clear-cut answer about why male managers tended to view workplace depression in a more negative light than their female counterparts. However, mental health experts say that it may have to do with differences in gender socialization, or the ways men and women are taught and expected to behave in society.

Lauren Cook, PsyD

Men internalize that it’s not OK to express emotions and they get really uncomfortable with other people showing emotions.

— Lauren Cook, PsyD

“Stigmas against depression are really deeply rooted. So many young men are taught from the time they’re little children not to cry, crying is weak, only girls cry, that sort of thing,” explains Lauren Cook, PsyD, a therapist and author of “Name Your Story: How to Talk Openly About Mental Health While Embracing Wellness.” 

“Men internalize that it’s not OK to express emotions and they get really uncomfortable with other people showing emotions, as well,” she adds.

On the other hand, social constructs around femininity tend to teach women to behave in a more nurturing, empathetic way.

Men also experience depression at lower rates than women. The lack of personal experience they have with the disorder compared with their female counterparts could make it difficult to truly understand what people with depression are going through.

“Women tend to experience depression more than men, and this knowledge of how depression affects daily functionality could increase compassion,” says Leela Magavi, MD, a board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry.

Mental health experts say that while the findings of the research can give a sense of how men and women differ in their views of workplace depression in general, the results shouldn’t be applied to individual people.

Carly Snyder, MD

There are female bosses who are tough as nails and some men who are softies and very emotionally connected.

— Carly Snyder, MD

“It’s so uniquely person dependent. There are female bosses who are tough as nails and some men who are softies and very emotionally connected,” says Carly Snyder, MD, a reproductive and perinatal psychiatrist who helps women cope with emotional symptoms throughout their reproductive years. “It’s very dependent on who your boss is, more than whether they’re a man or a woman.” 

Furthermore, it’s important to note that this study was conducted in Sweden, which has “a notable emphasis on gender equality,” according to the researchers. If the experiment was repeated in the U.S., we may see different results. 

“It would be helpful to conduct similar studies in different countries as culture may be a confounding variable,” says Dr. Magavi.

Depression in the Workplace

Around 16 million Americans have depression every year, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health. The mental health condition can make a serious negative impact on the way a person feels and their ability to accomplish tasks, especially at work. 

While some workplaces may be able to provide accommodations for employees with depression, stigmas against the disorder make it difficult for workers to talk to their managers about their condition and access those benefits. The Center for Workplace Mental Health reports that 49% of people who’ve been diagnosed with depression feel that sharing their condition with their employer could put their job on the line, and nearly 1 in 4 people feel it’s just too risky to share their diagnosis with their boss.

“People feel like they can’t share their symptoms with others, then we see people leave their jobs unexpectedly because they feel like they can’t get the support they need. We also see unexpected suicides happen,” says Dr. Cook. 

Breaking down stigmas against workplace depression is key to helping employees get the support they need. The study authors suggest that companies adopt gender-specific approaches toward changing managers’ attitudes toward depression. However, Dr. Magavi believes that a more holistic approach that addresses the needs of people of all genders may ultimately be more effective.

Leela Magavi, MD

Eliminating gender-specific approaches in most arenas may better allow men and women alike to openly discuss their emotions and seek help, so we can save lives.

— Leela Magavi, MD

“Eliminating gender-specific approaches in most arenas may better allow men and women alike to openly discuss their emotions and seek help, so we can save lives,” she says.

Coping With Depression at Work

Depression can cause a range of symptoms, including persistent feelings of sadness or emptiness, irritability, a sense of hopelessness, a drop in energy, changes in appetite, and difficulty concentrating. If you’re experiencing signs of depression nearly every day for a two-week period or longer, it’s important to seek treatment.

Carly Snyder, MD

There’s no reason to wait—treatment works.

— Carly Snyder, MD

“There’s no reason to wait—treatment works,” says Dr. Snyder.

Given that stigmas against workplace depression are still prevalent at many companies, you’ll need to figure out if it’s worthwhile to disclose your condition to your employer, regardless of their gender.

“Ask yourself about what the relationship with your boss is like,” says Dr. Cook. “It’s so dependent on the relationship you have with your boss.”

If you suspect that disclosing your condition to your manager may result in negative outcomes, you may opt to find ways to independently cope with depression during the workday (while seeking treatment from a trained mental health professional). Dr. Magavi suggests practicing positive affirmations, writing gratitude letters to yourself, and keeping track of your own accomplishments to boost self-compassion and confidence.

With that said, having an open and honest conversation about workplace depression with a manager who seems supportive and empathic could allow them to make helpful accommodations, like a flexible work schedule, extra mental health days, or a temporary reduction in your workload. They can also point out any mental health benefits, such as an employee assistance program, that your company offers.

If you are going to talk to your boss about depression, experts recommend having the conversation in private and keeping it brief and straight to the point. 

“I advise individuals to remain honest and avoid delving into too much detail, which may overwhelm supervisors,” says Dr. Magavi. “Brainstorming ways in which things can be realistically modified in the workplace to better support one’s needs and openly discussing these options may lead to positive and timely changes.”

What This Means For You

If you’re one of the 16 million Americans coping with depression, finding support at work can be tricky. Research shows that many managers, especially men, harbor stigmas against workplace depression, making it a risk for workers to disclose their condition and seek accommodations. 

Experts urge people who experience symptoms of depression for two weeks or more to seek treatment early. If you have a supportive and empathetic boss, consider having a brief, honest conversation about what you’re going through. You can also leverage other strategies, like practicing positive affirmations and tracking your accomplishments, to make it easier to get through the workday while you’re dealing with depression. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Mangerini I, Bertilsson M, de Rijk A, Hensing G. Gender differences in managers’ attitudes towards employees with depression: a cross-sectional study in Sweden. BMC Public Health. 2020;20(1):1744. doi:10.1186/s12889-020-09848-2

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  4. National Institute of Mental Health. Depression. Updated February 2018.