Employees who open up about depression are more productive, research finds

Experts say encouraging discussions on ‘invisible illness’ is in businesses’ best interests

Employees suffering from depression who feel they can openly discuss their illness with their manager are more productive than those who do not, research published yesterday has found. 

The London School of Economics and Politics (LSE) study of 15 countries, including the UK, revealed employees concealing their condition take more days off work than their openly unwell counterparts. 

“Our research shows that where employers create a culture of avoidance around talking about depression, employees themselves end up avoiding work and even when they return to work they are not as productive as they could be,” said Dr Sara Evans Lacko, associate professorial research fellow at LSE and co-author of the paper.

She added employers need to be more alive to the “invisible illness”, warning that, if managers feel “the issue is too taboo to discuss openly”, it could have a detrimental effect on employees and business productivity. 

Lacko also recommended more training and better workplace policies to help managers recognise symptoms sooner and provide earlier support, adding: “Up to a certain point, people can conceal it. A manager might recognise that an employee’s performance is suffering but not the reason behind that.” 

Jodie Hill, founder and managing director of specialist employment law firm Thrive Law, echoed Lacko’s calls for better mental health training, commenting: “Change has to come from employers to create an environment where people are not judged for being open about depression.”  

Meanwhile, Alison Pay, managing director of Mental Health at Work, told People Management the link between openness about mental health conditions and business productivity should incentivise organisations to better fund HR initiatives. 

“While most workplaces are now in agreement that we should be working towards removing the stigma around mental health by increasing line managers’ awareness, understanding and skills, it can be a challenge to prioritise funding for these activities,” she said.

“This research provides HR teams with more evidence around the improvements in productivity that can be gained as a result of increased openness around depression which they can use to build the business case to demonstrate a positive return on investment for mental health initiatives.”

According to an NHS report published earlier this year, poor mental health among employees costs businesses an estimated £10.6bn in sickness absence and £21.2bn in reduced productivity per year.

These findings come amid a long-running productivity slump. Earlier this month, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the UK’s productivity had grown just 0.9 per cent in the first quarter of 2018, significantly lower than pre-2008 levels. 

The LSE research also revealed a split between how different countries approached mental health in the workplace. Over half (53 per cent) of UK workers believed their managers were likely to offer help with depression.

Mexican workers rated their managers as most supportive, with 63 per cent saying they were likely to be offered help. Japanese managers ranked least supportive, with just 16 per cent of workers saying they could count on them to help.