Workers call in physically sick to hide mental ill-health, poll reveals

More than half of employees who took days off for psychological illness did not admit the real cause, as experts highlight ongoing ‘stigma’ around mental health at work 

UK workers on average are taking nearly four days off a year for mental health reasons, but more than half who do report the cause as physical illness, a survey has found.

The poll of 2,000 people, conducted by Censuswide and Slater and Gordon, found that in 2019 workers took on average 3.75 days off for mental health reasons including stress, exhaustion and depression because they were overwhelmed.

But of those who took mental health days, 55 per cent told their employer they were physically ill, with less than a third (32 per cent) admitting that the reasons were to do with mental health.

Nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) of respondents who weren’t honest with their boss said they either did not think they would be understood or be supported, while 30 per cent said they were embarrassed to tell the truth, and 27 per cent said they did not want their colleagues to know.

Additionally, 40 per cent of respondents said they argued with a partner and a third (33 per cent) with a family member because of burnout at work. More than one in 10 (15 per cent) said they had quit a job because of burnout.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said workplace culture often dictated whether individuals felt comfortable disclosing mental health problems. “In some workplaces, mental health is still a bit of a taboo issue and not everyone is comfortable about being open about something like stress or anxiety or depression,” he said.

Willmott said that increasingly the risks of the modern workplace were as much psychological as physical, noting that data from the Health and Safety Executive has seen cases of work-related stress, depression and anxiety increase over the last three years – accounting for 57 per cent of working days lost owing to ill-health in 2017-18.

He added that the key was ensuring staff, particularly line managers, were properly trained to manage people and spot the signs of mental ill-health.

“If people are managed well they’re less likely to suffer from stress and be more resilient, but also managers need to be able to spot the warning signs that people are struggling to cope,” said Willmott.

“That might be changes to their performance, it could be absences, but it might also be working excessive hours and not taking time off, or changes in emotional response – are they losing their temper uncharacteristically?”

Simon Blake, chief executive of Mental Health First Aid England, said there was still a significant gap in how employers think and act about physical and mental health at work.

Blake said mental health training was a key part of closing this gap: “Helping someone to access the right support at the right time can ultimately help someone on to a path to recovery or to manage symptoms, improving outcomes in the long term.”

He added that having trained mental health first aiders at work could help employees find the right support. “Just as a physical first aider might help a colleague with minor injuries or before the arrival of further medical help, a mental health first aider’s role is to offer support as a first point of contact and to signpost colleagues to appropriate support.”

Louise Aston, wellbeing director at Business in the Community, said the survey showed there was still a “significant amount of work to be done to challenge the stigma of mental health in the workplace.

“It’s OK not to be OK. We need an inclusive, targeted approach to ensure that managers receive quality training, are knowledgeable about key issues in the world of mental health and are aware of reasonable adjustments that can be made, such as flexible working.”