Workers calling in physically sick to mask mental ill-health

Researchers say ‘colossal’ problem will ‘spiral out of control’ without employer intervention

Two in five (42 per cent) UK employees who have called in sick and claimed they were physically unwell were covering up a mental health issue, research revealed yesterday.

Stress, anxiety and depression were the three most concealed issues according to the survey of more than 1,000 full-time UK employees by BHSF Occupational Health (formerly known as the Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund). A quarter (25 per cent) of those surveyed reported suffering from depression and a third (36 per cent) from anxiety. More than half (56 per cent) said they suffered from stress.

Only 15 per cent of those questioned for the Hiding in plain sight: mental health in the workplace report said they would tell their boss about a mental health issue. 

Dr Philip McCrea, chief medical officer at BHSF, said the results highlighted “the true scale of this colossal problem”.

“Without early intervention strategies, an open workplace culture and a proactive approach to employee mental health, this issue is not going away,” he said. “In fact, it will continue to spiral out of control if employers do not take action now, leading to a decrease in productivity and a devastating effect on the wellbeing of the UK’s workforce.”

CIPD wellbeing adviser Rachel Suff said the findings illustrated how far many organisations still have to go to create a truly stigma-free and inclusive workplace.

“The key is for senior leaders and HR to take a lead on the issue, ensuring that line managers are trained and educated about mental health and can spot the early warning signs of mental distress,” she added.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, agreed the findings showed employers must do more to encourage openness and debunk myths. 

“Employees may worry about being thought of as weak or unable to cope if they talk about their mental health due to inaccurate and outdated assumptions about the effect a problem like that can have on someone’s ability to carry out their work,” she said. 

Mamo added employers should be open about treating physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off and recommended employers take regular stock of the levels of stress and poor mental health in their workforce by using anonymous staff surveys.

Laura Conway, senior associate at Wedlake Bell, said employers that encourage discussion about mental health issues in the workplace and generally seek to raise awareness may find employees are more willing to be honest.

“Following up with employees after sickness absences, particularly where they are more regular, may help to establish the real cause of the issue and is also generally good practice for identifying disingenuous absences,” she said. 

Earlier research by the London School of Economics (LSE) found employees who felt able to open up about depression were more productive.  

Meanwhile, research published yesterday in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology by the University of Salford found that teams who were understaffed but had a manager who took that into account suffered from less burnout than teams which were understaffed but whose manager showed less consideration.