Employees more likely to hide mental health issue than physical health problem

Employees are more likely to lie about an absence if the cause is related to their mental health

Employees are more likely to lie about an absence if the cause is mental health rather than physical health related, according to research from healthcare provider AXA.

The report found that more than three-quarters (77%) of employees would tell their boss the truth if their sickness was due to a physical ailment such as back pain, flu or an accidental injury, but only two in five (39%) would tell the truth if they had to call in sick because of stress, anxiety or depression.

The problem was worst in SMEs, with only 37% of SME employees claiming they would tell their boss if they were absent because of mental ill health. In larger firms 44% of workers felt comfortable confiding the real reason for such an absence to their manager.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, said the figures echo Mind’s own research.

“We know that there is still a taboo around talking about issues like stress, anxiety and depression at work,” she told HR magazine. “It’s no wonder staff worry about opening up about their mental health, given this research shows that most employers – particularly smaller businesses – don’t treat mental health problems such as depression and stress as seriously as physical health problems like back pain when it comes to staff needing time off sick.”

Mamo said that employers can help combat mental ill health among employees.

“It’s vital employers introduce measures to promote good wellbeing at work and tackle the causes of stress and poor mental health among their staff. By being proactive you will send the message that employees will be supported if they are experiencing a problem,” she said. “This should encourage people to seek help sooner, potentially minimising the need for time off. We are beginning to see employers address these issues by putting initiatives in place, but we have some way to go.”

Regarding the business case for the above, Mamo added: “Not only is looking after staff the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense, resulting in increased productivity, morale and retention. Simple, inexpensive measures such as offering regular catch-ups with managers, flexible working hours, and employee assistance programmes can all make a huge difference to staff wellbeing.”

The AXA research also found that 23% of employees would not tell their line manager the real reason for any kind of illness-related absence for fear of being judged. A further 15% said they were afraid they would not be believed if they were honest about an illness.

Glen Parkinson, SME director for AXA PPP healthcare, said that employers need to trust staff to take appropriate time off when they're not well. “With managers showing so little understanding of or support for employees suffering from illness it’s not difficult to see why they worry about phoning in sick,” he said.

“Employers need to challenge this blinkered attitude, both for their own benefit as well as that of their workers. In many cases it is more productive for an employee to take a day off to recover from a spell of illness rather than to come into work with diminished productivity and, for the likes of colds and flu, the potential to spread their illness to colleagues.”