A study by mental health charity Mind found talking about workplace pressures remains a huge taboo.
Stress has forced one in five workers (19%) to call in sick, yet the vast majority of these (93%) say they have lied to their boss about the real reason for not turning up, citing everything from stomach upsets, housing problems and the illness of a loved one as reasons for their absence.
However, few employees actually want to hide their stress levels from their bosses – 70% wanted to be able to discuss stress with their employers, and one third want their boss to make the first move and approach them directly when they are showing signs of strain.
Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, said: "Millions of people experience unmanageable stress at work, and the fact that so many people feel forced to lie about it rather than finding a solution should be a major concern for our businesses. If employees don’t feel they can be honest about the pressures on them, problems that aren’t addressed can quickly snowball into low morale, low productivity and high sick leave. We’d urge employers to encourage a culture of openness at work so they can solve problems now, rather than storing up problems for the future.
The Mind research also reveals that the majority of employees (62%) feel their bosses aren’t doing enough to look after the workplace wellbeing of their staff, which may explain why stress has made one in five workers (21%) physically ill and driven a further one in 10 into counselling.
And employers who ignore the problem of stress in their workplace could be putting their businesses in jeopardy. Previous figures show that businesses are losing an estimated £8.4 billion through sick days caused by poor mental wellbeing.
Farmer added: "Stress can be a taboo word in many workplaces, but pretending the problem isn’t there only makes things worse. Looking after stress levels and promoting a mentally healthy workplace reduces sick leave, helps staff to stay productive and ultimately saves hard-pressed businesses money. In the current climate, it will be increasingly hard for businesses to prosper with an unhappy and stressed workforce, so it’s vital they work with their employees to discuss pressures on staff before they escalate.
When pressure is high, managers need to spend more time on leading and managing people, not less. Taking time out with an employee can seem like an extra burden for managers with their own set of targets to meet, but supporting staff properly will reduce absence, improve performance and benefit the company as a whole.
The top five lies employees use when covering up their stress are:
Stomach upset – 36%
A cold – 13%
A headache – 12%
A medical appointment – 6%
Bad back – 5%
Clive James, training development manager at St John Ambulance, said: "Stress is still a growing problem for British workers and there is a need for greater understanding and management of it by employers in all industries. According to a recent survey by the TUC, stress has become the most common health and safety problem at work. Work-related stress, depression or anxiety accounts for approximately 11.4 million reported lost working days per year with 415,000 individuals believing they are experiencing workplace stress at a level that is making them ill.
"The impact of this on a business can be immense. Just this year we heard about a local council that forked out some £2 million to staff that had reported work-related stress.
"What’s more, around 16.7% of all working individuals in 2009 thought that their job was very or extremely stressful. This National Stress Awareness Day businesses need to take notice and recognise the importance of minimising stress in the workplace."