Women, depression and the workplace

Depressed woman
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This article forms part of our series on women in the workplace. Take a look at the full content series for more information, including insight into impostor syndrome, sick leave and much more. 

According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), depression currently affects 1 in 6 people in the UK at some stage in their lives, and is more common in women.

It may have no obvious cause, or it may be triggered by an event such as bereavement, family problems or unemployment. 

A Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health report in 2007 said: “High rates of prevalence are not well recognised by employers. In a recent survey, 50% of senior managers thought that none of their workers would ever suffer from a mental health problem.”

There is, however, a growing awareness of the importance of health and safety and recognition that healthy employees make a greater contribution to a business.

Why do women get depressed at work?

There are many different reasons that women can become depressed at work, namely work demands, lack of support, relationships with colleagues and managers and any change in working arrangements.

It seems that work relationships appear as the primary stress factor demonstrating the largest difference between the genders, with 42% of females citing relationship difficulties at work, compared to only 8% of males. 

Stress and depression can be costly for employers, especially for small firms where cover for sick employees is difficult to arrange, and it can lead to higher rates of absence as well as employment tribunal claims.

An employee qualifies for protection as a disabled person under the Equality Act 2010 (“the Act”) if they suffer a physical or mental impairment, which has a substantial and adverse long term effect on their ability to carry out day to day activities.

It seems that work relationships appear as the primary stress factor demonstrating the largest difference between the genders

“Long term” tends to mean at least one year in this case.

Therefore, it is possible that someone suffering from depression would be classed as disabled under the Act.

Employers must therefore ensure that they do not treat such employees less favourably due to their condition and consider any adjustments to an employee’s role, to support employees with depression.

It can be extremely costly for employer’s to defend claims of disability discrimination and therefore it is important that all employers do what they can to help employee’s with depression, the long term absence depression can lead to, and the claims that may arise.

Creating an open environment

Employers may wish to consider creating an open environment in which staff feel comfortable to discuss their mental health.

This can be achieved by addressing the employee’s wellbeing in appraisals, and setting up mentoring schemes allowing employees to talk to staff about their problems outside of their management structure.

Employers should make sure that employees understand what they have to do and how to do it and that all their reasonable training needs are met.

It is also important to keep employees informed about what is going on in the company.

Perhaps an employer can consider flexible hours to help an employee with managing demands on their time.

In addition, they could give employees the opportunity to talk about issues causing any stress and be as sympathetic and supportive as possible. It is also important to keep employees informed about what is going on in the company so that they feel secure in their role.

How do staff react to change?

In relation to employees that do not react well to change , it is advisable that employers plan ahead so that managers and employees are prepared to deal with the changes.

It is good practice to also consult with employees about prospective changes so that they can have a say in what is being considered and feel as though they have played a part in the decision making process.

It is also advisable to have clear procedures in place to allow employees to air any grievances they may have, and to have proper disciplinary procedures so that any conduct or performance issues are dealt with professionally, and in line with the ACAS code.

All instances of bullying and/or harassment should be dealt with immediately

Having clear policies on the company’s stance on mental health can only help an employer. It demonstrates that the company recognises and accepts that mental health is an important issue and shows that the company is committed to promoting the mental health of its workforce.

All instances of bullying and/or harassment should be dealt with immediately and it should be made clear in all policies that such behaviour is not tolerated by the company and will lead to disciplinary action.

It is important that managers do not have false perceptions of mental health which may prompt them to take inappropriate action, which could lead to employment tribunal claims.

Training managers in areas of mental health would help. Such training could allow managers to spot any potential problems earlier to ensure employees receive the right support.

It is important that managers do not have false perceptions of mental health

Once an employee is recognised as having depression, the employer should help prioritise their workload, have regular meetings with the employee, offer flexible hours and offer any assistance the employer can reasonably provide.

It is important to keep communications alive with any employee you believe is suffering from depression and keep talking to them about how you can support them.

Although employees are under no duty to disclose to employers that they are suffering from depression, or stress, there may be some signs to look out for, such as employees having to leave work at short notice, employees being more tired than usual and displaying behaviour that is ‘out of character’.

Rebecca Fox is a Solicitor in the Employment team at Matthew Arnold & Baldwin LLP

About Rebecca Fox


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29th Sep 2011 17:17

Congratulations on raising what is the most pressing health issue in society. Depression and anxiety were the most common condtions cited by employees in a recent Dept of Work and Pensions survey. 

While the symptoms of depression are more often recorded in women, there is an argument that men mask symptoms with alcohol, drug taking and risky behaviour. A groundbreaking European report has found that while twice as many women report depression as men, five times as many men have an alcohol disorder and three times as many a drug problem.

The Men's Health Forum report 'Untold stories' states that 'men are three times more likely than women to take their own lives but only half as likely to be diagnosed with depression.' On the other hand, the 2010 Platform 51 report 'Women like me: Supporting Wellbeing in Girls and Women' found three in five women had been affected by mental health problems of some kind, one in three women had taken antidepressants and 37% had received some form of therapy. 

In terms of what employers can do the Management Standards shoud be mentioned here. I would say a risk assessment based on the HSE framework for managing stress would be the starting point, around which interventions can be crafted and which would provde benchmark data to monitor progress.  

I would also refer to the Improved Access to Psychologocal Therapies IAPT scheme, where employees are able to directly refer employees for NHS counselling. This seems to be little known about. 

My own view is that posters with information about depression should be in every workplace in the UK. Early warning and prevention is by far the best course. Once depression gets a grip the effects can be disastrous for employees and organsations alike. 





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20th Oct 2011 22:44

There are many factors which can trigger a reduction in the reliability and performance of an employee who was formerly a real asset to a business. It is not always easy for an employee to go to a direct manager or human resources to explain their problems. People are afraid to admit or openly discuss what is bothering them in case it damages their job security or future prospects. A company which is committed to looking after the well-being of its employees can demonstrate that commitment by bringing in the services of a Life or Business Coach who is impartial, can agree with the employee and employer the exact levels of confidentiality and reporting which will be agreeble to all parties, and can enable an employee to share and work through their problems without fear. Whether the company is looking for an improvement in the performance, communication with others, or reliability and attendance of a faultering employee, the path the employee follows with the coach should soon start to reap tangible benefits producing the noticeable progress which the employer requires and restoring the employee.

The employer does not need to know the intimate details of any personal problems which have triggered an employees problems as long as the coaching leads to a resolution of these problems and a gradual return to their former levels of efficiency. If the problems stem from poor management style, bullying, or an overload of work due to inept management or an under-staffed office, then the other factors in the workplace which are causing the stress, unhappiness or frustration will need to be woven into the process. Those members of staff who are contributing to the problem would also need to be engaged in the process and work with the coach to ensure that all associated factors are addressed, discussed and worked through.

A coach can be brought in by a company if and when needed on an hourly basis, per half day or per day. If it is a larger issue involving several members of staff - a department or team or if the coach has gained a good understanding of the fluctuating needs of a company then they can be retained on a quarterly, half-yearly or annual fixed fee basis with a commitment to provide a range of services to address different issues within the organisation throughout that period.

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