UK employees have revealed the real reason they call in sick – despite claiming to have a physical health problem, they admit it’s actually stress (21%), anxiety (18%) and/or depression (20%).

In total 42% of employees have called in sick claiming a physical illness, when in reality it’s a mental health issue.

New research from health and wellbeing provider BHSF, has highlighted a hidden problem that is only magnified by the stigma surrounding poor mental health. The research shows that 24% of employees worry that if they did need to take a sick day due to a mental health issue, they wouldn’t be taken seriously.

Over half (56%) of employees admitted to suffering from stress, a third from anxiety (36%) and a quarter from depression (25%). Despite 46% admitting that work is the main cause of their mental health problems, just 15% would tell their boss if they were struggling with an issue of this nature.

Dr Philip McCrea, Chief Medical Officer at BHSF Occupational Health, commissioned this research to raise awareness of employee wellbeing during Mental Health Awareness Week (14th-20th May). He said: “The scale of this problem is huge – and it is being massively underestimated by employers, with employees feeling that they have to mask the issues they are facing.

“Although shocking, these findings don’t surprise me – this research must provide a reality check for employers, who need to be more proactive, focusing on early intervention. A more open culture must be created in work places across the UK, and employers have to take responsibility for this change.”

Despite mental health being at the forefront of conversations in recent years, 27% still believe that a mental health problem would carry a stigma, with 36% scared of what their colleagues might think.

The new research also highlights the need for workplace support. The statistics show that just 21% of employees receive dedicated mental health support from their employer. Shockingly, this lack of employer support has led to an average of 8.4 sick days taken each year due to a mental health problem.

McCrea said: “Mental health problems do not suddenly materialise. The vast majority of individuals suffering from poor mental health will show obvious signs, which are easy to spot in the workplace. For employers, developing early intervention strategies is critical.”

The research also showed that 27% of employees would like to have open conversations about mental health within the workplace. A quarter of employees (23%) said they would feel more supported if dedicated days off were allocated for mental wellbeing, and a further 22% would benefit from dedicated mental health support staff.

McCrea continued: “Schemes focused on early intervention could include introducing mental health first aiders, or providing additional training support for managers to identify key signs to look out for. These are just two simple ways to open up the conversations about mental health, but this activity will contribute to changing company culture, and creating a more open environment promoting good mental health.

“Employers must introduce wellbeing initiatives that maintain or improve good mental health, resilience training, for example. Employees can no longer rely on the NHS for quick treatment of mental health issues – those needing talking therapy could end up waiting years.

“Providing these services or paying for treatment is the ultimate duty of care – which will secure the loyalty of staff, as well as preventing employee absence. The cost-benefit of providing treatment options for employees is a no-brainer. It’s up to employers to take a proactive approach and improve their employees’ mental health before it’s too late.”