· News

Burnout affects a fifth of UK employees as long-term sick hits record high

A third (35%) of adults experienced high or extreme levels of pressure and stress 'always' or 'often' in the past year

Research from Mental Health UK found that 20% of workers needed to take time off work due to stress in the past year as long-term sickness absence reaches a record high.

Brian Dow, chief executive of Mental Health UK, said: “Simply put, the UK is rapidly becoming a burntout nation, and a worrying number of people are taking time off work due to poor mental health caused by stress.”

A third (35%) of adults experienced high or extreme levels of pressure and stress 'always' or 'often' in the past year.

Read more: Sick leave hits 10-year high in cost of living crisis

The news comes as economic inactivity due to long-term illness reached a record high last year, according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

A total of 2.58 million people are off work due to long-term illness, a figure that has risen by 449,000 since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in January 2020.

In separate survey from the CIPD and the insurance company Simplyhealth, 76% of people reported stress-related absence in their organisations in 2023.

Dow said that employee mental health has taken a hit as the cost of living crisis and global tensions continue.

He said: “High levels of work absence due to poor mental health is a major challenge, but its causes are complex. Public attitudes and understanding towards mental health and work have changed, particularly as the workplace transformed overnight in response to the pandemic.

“Meanwhile, we live in unprecedented times. Life outside work has become increasingly difficult due to the cost of living crisis and pressures on public services, while global challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence fuel stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.”

Mental Health UK's research found factors contributing to burnout include a high or increased workload or volume of tasks (54%), working unpaid overtime beyond contracted hours (45%) and feeling isolated at work (42%).

Read more: Record numbers fall out of workforce due to long-term sickness

The study also found 38% experienced stress due to taking on additional work because of the cost of living crisis.

Nebel Crowhurst, CPO at HR platform Reward Gateway, said employers can support employees through effective benefits packages.

She told HR magazine: “A great response by employers could help workers feel truly supported in their personal lives. For instance, during the cost of living crisis, benefits like interest-free loans on white goods could dampen some immediate financial worries. Or employers can show their support for big life decisions with staff benefits such as fertility support with family planning or mortgage advice.”

Over half cited having a healthy work/life balance (56%) would help prevent burnout, while four in 10 said having a supportive line manager (43%) or supportive colleagues and peers (42%) would help. 

Other leading factors included reasonable adjustments at work (38%), professional support for mental health such as employee assistance programmes or coaching (29%) and organisations offering staff training around mental health at work (24%).

Dow said the government and employers must put a plan in place to manage the burnout crisis.

Nearly half of workers (49%) said their employer doesn’t have a plan to spot signs of chronic stress and prevent burnout, while 22% don’t know if their employer has such a plan in place.

Read more: When should stress be considered a disability at work?

Dow said: “What is clear is that we urgently need government to lead a national conversation about how we can best help people to stay in or return to work, given the positive impact that secure employment has on mental health. Part of this will involve looking at how employers can better spot and manage stress before it becomes burnout. 

“But the onus isn’t just on organisations, and while it is positive that staff are more likely to raise concerns about stress and mental health than in the past, we will need to consider what support and adjustments from employers are reasonable. 

“There will be no simple, one-size-fits-all solution, but a failure to properly understand and address the challenges faced will threaten our long-term health and success as a nation.” 

 Mental Health UK polled 2,000 UK adults.