Unum's recent research has shown the long-term trend of stress resulting in long-term sickness absence is decreasing, with the proportion of all long-term sickness absence cases attributed to stress falling by 10% in the past four years; stress now accounts for 23% of all long-term absences, compared with 33% in 2006.
According to the insurer, the increase in the number of people signed off work on long-term sick absence, reported last week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) as part of the latest employment statistics, should not be seen as evidence of an overall increase in the proportion of people suffering from stress.
Michael O'Donnell, chief medical officer at Unum, said: "The decrease in stress as a cause of long-term sickness absence that we have recorded may be due to the companies concerned gradually tackling stress issues in the workplace, or because some employees would rather have another diagnosis than ‘stress'. This trend is also shown in the Labour Force Survey, which has been consistent with our findings over the last five years.
"We need to be careful not to be premature in drawing conclusions from the ONS figures. It is inevitable that job losses will include those with mental ill health, including stress. Additionally, normal anxiety about job loss is rational and should not be confused with mental ill health.
"It is a sad fact that stigma against mental ill health still exists at work, and many people do not feel able to talk about such problems with their employers. It's important to acknowledge that it is natural to experience stress and there are ways to manage it, including making use of employee assistance programmes, which are increasingly offered through the workplace; careful financial planning and organisation; and communication with line managers or HR if the employee feels comfortable to do so.
"There is much evidence to show that being in work is better for your health. We should therefore be very careful before encouraging people to go off sick with stress and into the very situation they are most frightened of - that is, being out of work."