Stress overtakes cancer as main cause of sickness absence
Tougher workloads, having a “bad” boss and the fear of being made redundant are among the top factors piling the pressure on UK employees, the research revealed.
An increased strain on family life and relationships, largely due to money worries in the current economic climate, is adding to a “vicious circle” of workers’ woes, experts warned.
Two-fifths of employers said stress-related sick days had gone up over the past year, the survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth found.
Half of public sector organisations reported an increase in absence due to stress compared to just a third of manufacturers, with state employers blaming the volume of job cuts, pension changes and pay freezes.
Jill Miller, CIPD adviser, said: “Stress is for the first time the number one cause of long-term sickness absence, highlighting the heightened pressure many people feel under in the workplace as a result of the prolonged economic downturn. Stress is a particular challenge in the public sector where the sheer amount of major change and restructuring would appear to be the root cause.”
For manual workers, stress has overtaken physical conditions like neck pain and repetitive strain injury as causing absence, the survey revealed. Among office-based workers, stress has moved ahead of acute illnesses like cancer or heart attacks.
However, the research showed public sector absence was still running far higher than private sector services firms, at 9.1 days per year compared to 7.1 days. Among manufacturers, absence was just 5.7 days per year.
Worryingly, a number of employers think that pulling a “sickie” is a top cause of time off.
Cary Cooper, a workplace health professor at Lancaster University, said the results showed public sector workers felt more secure than their private sector counterparts, as they were taking more time off. “Workers who are ill are frightened that if they don’t turn up to work, they will be among the next tranche being made redundant,” he said.
But the CIPD survey showed public sector absence had actually declined over the past 12 months, suggesting public sector workers were falling victim to “presenteeism” – showing face when unwell, Mr Cooper said.
However, he warned of a “vicious circle” for employees struggling to work when ill. “If you go to work because you’re afraid not to, as a consequence you get even more ill. This massively interferes with family life and you become more stressed, it’s a vicious circle,” he said.
One in six private sector firms were planning on making more job cuts over the next six months, compared to two fifths of public sector organisations, the survey of 592 employers showed.
Those employers cutting jobs said they had seen more staff come to work ill over the last 12 months – but were also more likely to see an increase in stress-related absence.
Organisations planning redundancies were also “significantly” more likely to report mental health problems among staff, the survey showed.