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Unexplained sick days costing UK economy £1.4bn a year, report reveals

British workers are still uncomfortable disclosing mental health issues or burnout, as nearly a quarter (23%) admit they would rather take an unexplained sick day than discuss their issues with their employers. That’s according to a report from Breathe, commissioned to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week 2019 reveals.


The research found 40% of employees are uncomfortable calling in sick to their employer for a mental health reason, even though business owners ranked mental health issues as the third (75%) most ‘acceptable reason to call in sick’ -- a significant increase from its prior ranking (17%) from Benenden Health’s 2015 study.


According to Breathe’s ‘Sick Report 2019: the state of health and well-being in British SMEs’, which surveyed over 1,500 employees and SME business leaders, unexplained sick days are costing the UK economy £1.4bn annually.


This research echoes recent findings from CIPD alongside Simplyhealth that revealed nearly two-fifths of UK businesses (37%) have seen an increase in stress-related absence over the last year, with heavy workloads and poor management style to blame.


Jonathan Richards, CEO at Breathe, commented, “Running a business is one of the most challenging things someone can do and our research shows mental health issues are prevalent at board level too. This makes it all the more important for SMEs to focus on its company culture by prioritising employee health and well-being, this means leading from the front and practising what you preach. After all, employee and boardroom burnout is not conducive to business success.”


Other key findings from the report found:

  • Persistent presenteeism: 50% of employees regularly work through their breaks and outside of working hours, indicating that presenteeism – a known contributor to stress – is commonplace in the UK’s SME workplaces.  
  • Mental health issues a key reason for sick leave: Although 53% of SME decision makers took no sick leave in the last year, of those that did, 14% were due to stress and mental health in comparison with 7% of employees
  • Not enough support: Nearly half (46%) of employees do not receive any health and well-being benefits, such as paid sick leave, private medical insurance, free fruit, cycle to work schemes or gym memberships.
  • However, attitudes are changing, with mental health high up the list of the top 6 acceptable reasons for calling in sick according to employees:


  • 1. Food poisoning
  • 2. Flu
  • 3. Mental illness
  • 4. Migraine
  • 5. Stress
  • 6. Cold


Ruth Sutherland, CEO at Samaritans, said on the report, “It’s encouraging to see more employers taking the emotional health of their staff seriously. But we still have more work to do. The only way we can bring about real change is to create an open and supportive workplace, where staff feel able to talk about their emotional health without fear of judgment. And employers can play a crucial role in helping people look after their emotional health.”


Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

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