Employers have a duty of care to consistently take note of their employees’ welfare, building awareness of mental health amongst employees is part and parcel of this.

Mental health issues have come to the forefront of public consciousness in the past year, but taking time off for a mental illness is still less widely accepted than taking a sick day for a physical illness, according to new research from Canada Life.

Mental health presenteeism is a growing issue in the UK. Over a fifth (22 per cent) of employees went into work when feeling mentally ill last year, up from 18 per cent in 2016, despite the number of employees not taking a sick day decreasing from 54 per cent in 2016 to 47 per cent in 2017.

A fifth (21 per cent) admit that they are more likely to go into work when feeling unwell from a mental health problem, rather than a physical illness, while 15 per cent state that their boss and colleagues would not take them seriously if they took time off for a mental health issue, an increase from 12 per cent in 2017. Meanwhile, the same proportion (15 per cent) worry that taking time off for a mental illness would jeopardise their opportunities for progression, up slightly from 13 per cent in 2016.

Thinking about taking time off for mental health conditions, which of the following statements apply? 2017 2016
I have come into work when feeling unwell because of a mental health problem 22 per cent 18 per cent
I am more likely to come into work when feeling unwell from a mental health problem than a physical illness 21 per cent 19 per cent
My boss/colleagues wouldn’t take me seriously if I took time off for a mental health issue 15 per cent 12 per cent
I would worry about my career progression/future job prospects if I took time off for a mental health condition 15 per cent 13 per cent
I would be more embarrassed to say I was off ill with a mental health problem than a physical illness 15 per cent 20 per cent
My boss/colleagues have less of an understanding about mental health issues than physical conditions 14 per cent 12 per cent
I would be sceptical if a colleague took time off for a mental health condition 5 per cent 8 per cent


Internal processes may prove to be a stumbling block for employees struggling to take time off when mentally unwell as three in ten (29 per cent) UK employees admit it’s easy to take time off for a physical illness at their workplace, but not for a mental one. Less than half that number (12 per cent) report it is easier to take time off for mental ill health than physical problems.

Lack of awareness for support

One of the main issues concerning mental health issues is the isolating effect it can have on an individual. Over a third (35 per cent) of employees are not currently aware of any form of support their workplace offers to manage sickness absence, while one in eight (13 per cent) definitely do not have any support options available to them.

These issues could be combatted and improved with a more flexible approach to working, a positive attitude towards mental health issues and increased workplace support.

Three in ten (28 per cent) believe flexible working options would help with both their physical and mental health, a similar number of workers (27 per cent) say a more positive workplace attitude towards health and wellbeing would help, while a fifth (19 per cent) think that better workplace support (for example, Employee Assistance Programmes) would be beneficial.


Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life Group Insurance, comments:

“Mental health issues can be a vicious cycle for employees, fuelled by persistent presenteeism and the need to be ‘always on’. Employees suffering from mental illness should be focusing on getting better, rather than struggling into the office, as the stress of work is unlikely to lead to an improvement in their overall condition.

 “Despite a noticeable increase in the acceptance of mental health issues in society, employees are still concerned that their boss and colleagues would not take their mental health issues seriously, or worse, that they are hindering themselves for future opportunities at their company by taking time off for a mental illness. Employers must show that they are serious about supporting employees with mental health and stress-related issues. Communicate that it’s fine to take time off to get better and that there won’t be any negative impact on their career for doing so. 

 “Employee Assistance Programmes are an invaluable form of support for staff with mental health concerns. Back-to-work rehabilitation programmes also support those who need to take a longer period off work. Both of these are provided as part of many Group Income Protection policies. Having these support services in place provides practical support and reinforces the message that employers are serious about employee health and wellbeing.”

Are you interested in wellbeing at work? Join us in celebrating World Mental Health Day and save £300 on tickets for Symposium’s Workplace Wellbeing and Stress Forum.

Book using code WMHD2018 before 5:00pm today (10th October) to secure a ticket for just £199 (usually £499).





Rebecca joined the HRreview editorial team in January 2016. After graduating from the University of Sheffield Hallam in 2013 with a BA in English Literature, Rebecca has spent five years working in print and online journalism in Manchester and London. In the past she has been part of the editorial teams at Sleeper and Dezeen and has founded her own arts collective.