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The final taboo: Millions of employees forced to lie about stress

Wednesday, 03 November 2010 Mind

Millions of British workers feel forced to lie to their bosses about having to take stress-induced sick leave.

A study by leading mental health charity Mind, released to coincide with Stress Awareness Day (3 November), finds that 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 £8.4bn (1) through sick days caused by poor mental wellbeing.

Paul Farmer continued:

"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%

Mind is currently campaigning to tackle workplace stress and make workplaces more mentally healthy through its “Taking care of business” campaign.

Mind’s guide for employers to tackle stress

  • Manage workloads among your staff. Make sure that no one is expected to deliver more than what they are capable of.
  • Train managers to identify risks, recognise stress and support their staff.
  • For staff working in isolation, ensure there are clear and regular lines of communication. A monthly team meeting or a regular phone catch up will keep you in contact with these members of staff and enable you to prevent problems from occurring.
  • Offer stress coaching and on-the-job support. Start a mentoring scheme to help new members of staff understand your organisation faster and to support them in their role. Or you could start a buddy system which enables colleagues to support other colleagues outside the official line-management structure.
  • Make sure that work environments are suitable for the task. Noise, temperature and light levels can all have a big impact on wellbeing. Could space dividers, quiet spaces or music improve your workplace?


For more information visit or call 0300 123 3393


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