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Stigma in the Workplace

Many people think that depression is due to personal weakness or is otherwise not a “real” health condition.  In fact, depression is a serious illness that results from biochemical, environmental, and genetic factors, just like most other health problems.  One big difference between illnesses like depression and other chronic conditions, such as heart disease or diabetes, is that people with depression often experience greater stigma for their illness because of misconceptions about its causes and treatments.

People experience stigma when they are labeled as being “different” in a negative way, and this can extend to outright discrimination. Stigma can affect how other people respond to someone with depression, and also how people with depression view themselves.

The truth is that depression is an illness that requires treatment, the same as other health conditions.  Addressing stigma around mental health in the workplace will increase the likelihood that people will seek and receive the treatment they need so they can continue working and maintain the quality of their work.

Many people with depression feel uncomfortable asking for help because of concerns about how friends, family, co-workers, supervisors, or even health professionals will react.  This discomfort in asking for help is the primary harm of stigma because it is a major barrier to people receiving treatment.  Among adults with depression, only 58% receive treatment.b  The stigma people with depression perceive from others has also been associated with not sticking to prescribed drug treatments and discontinuing psychiatric treatment.c,d

Therefore, depression awareness and a supportive social context in the workplace are necessary for optimal recognition and treatment of symptoms, and, consequently, for minimizing the harm done to productivity and cost-effectiveness. Stigma’s felt effects on employees with depression make it important to maintain a culture of acceptance, understanding, and confidentiality for the duration of treatment and beyond, and not just after symptoms have been recognized; failure to follow through on treatment can lead to absenteeism, presenteeism, and employee turnover.

The presence of stigma in the workplace actually presents employers with the opportunity to educate employees, managers, and supervisors about the symptoms and consequences of depression and resources available for appropriate and effective treatment.

 

a. Conceptualizing stigma. Annual Review of Sociology, 2001:27: 363-85.
b. See the US Department of Health and Human Services Report "Healthy People"
c. Sirey J.A., Bruce M.L., Alexopoulos G.S., et al: Perceived stigma as a predictor of treatment discontinuation in young and older outpatients with depression. American Journal of Psychiatry 158:479–481, 2001
d. Sirey J.A., Bruce, M.L., Alexopoulos G.S., et al: Perceived stigma and patient-rated severity of illness as predictors of antidepressant drug adherence. Psychiatric Services 52:1615–1620, 2001