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Workers fear long-term health condition stigma

34% of UK workers have lied about their reasons for taking time off sick out of fear of stigma, according to research

A OnePoll study, commissioned by national charity Crohn’s & Colitis UK, found that employees frequently pick a ‘one-off’ or short-term health complaint when calling in sick, instead of telling the truth about recurring problems.

The UK survey of 2,000 employed adults showed that long-term health conditions are deemed the ‘least valid’ reasons for not attending work, despite their often devastating symptoms. Only 15% of people said that Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – the two most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease – were acceptable reasons to call in sick. Other often invisible long-term conditions, such as depression (11%), anxiety (4%) and fatigue (3%), scored even lower.

Crohn’s and colitis also came second only to mental health as a ‘taboo subject’ in workplace conversations.

When asked for the most ‘legitimate’ reason for taking a sick day the British public’s top three answers were short-term illnesses: vomiting (43%), flu (36%) and food poisoning (33%).

When calling in sick Brits cover up the real reason for their illness out of fear of judgement (32%), and feel anxious (37%), stressed (28%) and doubted (22%) when having to take time off work.

Fifty-seven per cent of those with a long-term health condition said they felt the need to downplay it at work. Of those, 43% believed they would experience stigma in the workplace otherwise, and 38% thought that it would affect their careers.

Just over half (51%) of respondents felt that their workplace does not provide a supportive environment for dealing with their long-term condition.

The OnePoll findings are supported by additional research by Crohn’s & Colitis UK showing that 44% of the 300,000 people living with Crohn’s and colitis in the UK agree that their condition has affected their careers.

The study found that 18% of workers feel ‘frustrated’ towards colleagues who are frequently off sick, and 6% feel ‘angry’ towards these colleagues.

Juliet Chambers, communications manager at Crohn's & Colitis UK, called for employers to break down the taboos around hidden health conditions.

“Living with any long-term condition is hard. Crohn’s and colitis are a growing but hidden health crisis in UK workplaces – and people need better support and understanding to manage these conditions,” she said.

“Right now too many people feel forced to downplay the severity of their illness at work because of stigma. What’s worse; the stress and anxiety experienced by employees calling in sick will only increase the already devastating symptoms of their disease. We need to break down this taboo in the workplace and help employers and colleagues understand the true impact of these hidden diseases.”