One in five workers ‘embarrassed to take time off for mental illness’

Experts place the onus on employers to create inclusive workplaces and stamp out stigma towards absent staff

Employees in the UK have grown more concerned about taking time off because of mental health problems over the last year, according to a study, with presenteeism a “persistent problem” in workplaces.

In the study of 1,000 part and full-time employees by Canada Life Group, one in five (21 per cent) said they were embarrassed to take time off for mental illness, and 40 per cent felt it was easier to be absent for a physical ailment than a mental health condition.

This compared to just 29 per cent who felt it was easier to take time off for a physical illness in 2018, a drop of 11 percentage points, which the study said indicated a “persistent problem” in mental health presenteeism.

The study did indicate there was some level of understanding around mental health in the workplace – just 16 per cent of respondents said their boss and colleagues had less of an understanding of mental health problems than physical ones.

Despite this, the results suggested coworkers could feel resentful towards unwell colleagues. Additional workloads caused by absent staff led 21 per cent to feel more stressed, while 16 per cent said they did not believe their colleagues were really ill when they called in sick. 

The survey comes just weeks after a separate poll of HR directors, conducted by TalkOut, found half believed mental ill-health was a ‘liability’.

Jill Mead, co-founder and managing director of TalkOut, said HR managers and business leaders “must take responsibility for ensuring their organisation has a mentally healthy environment where people can talk about mental health in the same way they talk about physical health without fear of consequences.

“If we’re going to make any progress, mental health needs to stop being seen as a taboo, particularly in professional environments.”

The Canada Life survey found a third (32 per cent) of employees believed that access to flexible working options would help, and 24 per cent thought ensuring there was less pressure to be ‘always on’ was important.

Paul Avis, marketing director at Canada Life Group Insurance, said misconceptions around mental health needed to be uprooted. “Employees should not feel concerned or embarrassed for taking time off for a mental illness,” he said.

“Forcing themselves to carry on working without support could make things worse and result in an extended leave of absence, which is detrimental for both staff and employers.”