Workers’ and managers’ perspectives on workplace supports for depression

In brief

  • In a survey of workers with depression and those who manage them, nearly one out of four said no supports were available.
  • Asked about the most helpful type of support, survey respondents most often indicated employee assistance programs (EAPs) and other supports external to the workplace.
  • In interviews and focus groups, participants endorsed workplace practices that enhance awareness about depression, address psychological hazards, contribute to a positive workplace culture, incorporate flexible approaches, increase communication about processes, and allow coordination with external resources.
  • As for barriers to implementing practices, participants noted unsupportive managers, lack of knowledge about mental health in the workplace, and lack of training for managers.

Published: January 2022

Why was this study done?

Workplace-based programs and practices to support and accommodate workers with depression are available, but their effectiveness is largely unknown. Implementation of such supports and accommodations can also be challenging. This study set out to understand the perspectives of workers with depression and those who manage them on current workplace practices to support and accommodate depression.

How was the study done?

The team conducted an online survey of 453 people, and conducted further interviews and focus groups with 21 of them. Participants were predominantly from Ontario and British Columbia. They worked mainly in larger organizations, with substantial proportions from health care (34 per cent) and education (19 per cent). Of the overall sample, 380 had experience with depression—nearly 75 per cent were employees with lived experience of depression, and just over 25 per cent were people who had managed or supported workers with depression. Of those who took part in the interviews and focus groups, the breakdown between employees with lived experience and managers was closer to 50-50.

Survey respondents were asked whether they had experienced depression at work, who they turned to at work for support, what support was offered, what type of support was most helpful, and what barriers they faced in accessing such support. Survey participants who managed others were also asked about the training they received on supporting workers with depression.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found some important differences in the views of workers with depression and the people who manage them. Workers with depression said they most often turned to external providers (45 per cent) and co-workers (33 per cent) for support. However, 31 per cent of workers said they did not turn to anyone for support. When asked what support was most helpful, workers most often named employee assistance programs (53 per cent) and external resources (40 per cent). However, a substantial proportion indicated they found no person (34 per cent) and no supports (21 per cent) to be helpful; 23 per cent said no supports were offered at their workplace.

In contrast, managers most often identified managers/supervisors (69 per cent) and external providers (53 per cent) as people workers could turn to for support. Asked about the type of support available to employees, managers listed non-judgmental listening (89 per cent), employee assistance plans (75 per cent), information about depression or mental health (71 per cent) and job modifications (52 per cent).

Managers and workers with lived experience of depression pointed to different factors as barriers to support. Managers cited lack of training for managers and supervisors (47 per cent) and little knowledge about mental health in the workplace (42 per cent); workers agreed that little knowledge about mental health was a barrier (34 per cent) but they also cited lack of support from managers (44 per cent).

In focus groups and interviews, participants also highlighted themes such as lack of workplace awareness of mental health, the need for training, the need to address psychological hazards, and the importance of a workplace culture that is genuine, caring, empathetic and open about mental wellness and mental health. They discussed the need for flexible supports, clear communication about processes related to leaving and returning to work, and coordination of resources with external providers.

What are the implications of the study?

While organizations are taking steps to better support mental health in the workplace, many employees and managers continue to identify gaps in support and in the implementation of policies and practices. With growing recognition of mental health disorders, the number of studies on workplace strategies for depression is on the rise. However, we still need to better understand effective implementation of workplace practices and barriers to mental health services and support.

What are some strengths and weaknesses of the study?

A strength of this study was its dual focus on workers with depression and people who managed workers with depression. Another strength was the involvement of a stakeholder advisory committee in identifying meaningful questions to ask in the survey and interviews. A weakness of this study was its recruitment approach, called “convenience sampling,” which involved contacting people in known workplace networks and asking them to forward recruitment emails to potential participants. This may have led to less diversity in the sample with respect to types of workplaces and sectors, as well as more uniformity in the demographic make-up of participants—i.e. they tended to be older workers in full-time, permanent contracts at large workplaces.