Inability to discuss stress at work makes problem worse

Millions of British workers feel forced to lie to their bosses about having to take stress-induced sick leave, while for many others the traditional British “stiff upper lip” approach to tackling stress is leaving them at risk of suffering even more serious mental ill health, two surveys have concluded.

A study by the mental health charity Mind found that nearly one-fifth of workers admitted to having taken time off work because of stress. Yet the majority – 93% – also said they had lied to their boss about the real reason for not turning up, citing everything from stomach upsets to the illness of a loved one as the reason for their absence.

The top five lies employees used when covering up stress were: a stomach upset (36%); a cold (13%); a headache (12%); a medical appointment (6%); and a bad back (5%).

This was despite the fact that seven out of 10 employees wanted to be able to discuss their stress levels with their boss but felt too scared or intimidated to do so. One-third wanted their boss to recognise the signs and make the first move, the survey also found.

More widely, the research found nearly two-thirds of the employees felt their bosses were not doing enough to look after the workplace wellbeing of their staff.

Stress had made one in five of the employees polled ill and driven one in 10 to seek counselling.

In a separate survey, the Mental Health Foundation concluded that eating junk food, spending time alone or “just living with it” are the most common approaches to dealing with stress in UK workplaces.

Yet ignoring the problem in this way potentially puts workers at risk of suffering from even greater mental ill health later. The report found one in five people felt stressed every day, with half feeling stressed at least once a week.

The under-25s were the most stressed age group, with Liverpool and Milton Keynes housing the most stressed people and Bristol the least.

Kevin Friery, clinical director of consultancy Right Corecare, suggested the key is that employers – and the UK as a whole – should stop thinking so much about stress and refocus on resilience.

“Resilience is a pre-emptive strike against stress. Rather than waiting for it and seeking a cure, it looks at the situations that are more likely to create stress and prepares the individual, building a skill-set that makes situations more manageable and stress less likely,” he says.

Both surveys, and Friery’s comments, were published to coincide with National Stress Awareness Day on 2 November.

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