Over two thirds (69 percent) of senior managers and business owners in the UK believe that suffering from stress, anxiety or depression is not a serious enough reason for employees to be off work, according to new research from AXA PPP healthcare released today. The research, which comprised of an online survey of 1,000 employees and an online survey of 1,000 senior business managers, managing directors, chief executive officers and owners undertaken in February 2015 by market researcher OnePoll, highlights the stigma still surrounding mental ill health in British workplaces.

When asked how they would react if an employee they manage was found to be suffering from a mental health issue, one in five said they would worry about the employee’s capability to do their job. One in six said they would worry about the consequences for themselves personally, such as it reflecting poorly on their management style or having to pick up additional work. This is despite one in four of managers acknowledging that they have experienced a mental health problem themselves; a finding that exactly mirrors the response of employees when asked the same question.

When asked if they would be honest with their line manager when calling in sick because they were suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, only 39 percent of employees said they would tell the truth. For those that stated they would avoid telling the truth, one in seven (15 percent) said they were afraid they would not be believed, one in four (23 percent) were afraid of being judged and 23 percent preferred to keep their health issues private. Seven percent said they feared their line manager’s reaction to being told the truth.

Commenting on the research findings, Dr Mark Winwood, director of clinical psychology at AXA PPP healthcare, said, “Stress and mental health issues affect one in four people on average in any given year and one in six at any given time. With this rate of occurrence, we need to work harder to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental ill health. Businesses are well placed to lead the way to changing this harmful prejudice by giving their employees the necessary tools and support to enable them to discuss mental health in an open and unbiased way.

The research found that there was considerable skepticism about the seriousness of employers’ commitment to dealing with mental ill health at work. Nearly half (46 percent) of employees surveyed thought their employer didn’t take mental health issues seriously. Just 12 percent of bosses thought their industry was affected by mental ill health and felt that it was doing enough to address it.

On a more positive note, over half (54 percent) of employers thought that attitudes towards mental ill health in the workplace have changed for the better in the past fifteen years, compared with 30 percent who said that they had not seen any change.

“Lack of understanding breeds fear,” said Dr. Winwood, “so improving employees’ awareness and understanding of mental illness is one of the most important things a company’s senior management team can do and a critical first step is to challenge the stigma surrounding mental ill health in the workplace.

“Employers can begin by introducing a number of small but important changes such as promoting an open and honest culture where the facts about mental ill health are freely communicated and discussed. I have seen that senior managers who have been open and felt able to share their own experiences of mental health challenges and worries have often succeeded in developing an environment that is more accepting. Training and supporting managers to deal with employees affected by mental ill health will also help to give them the confidence to provide effective support where and when it is needed.”

James Marsh, consultant for HR training provider Symposium, was quick to welcome the findings and is keen to urge business leaders to commit to equipping there managers and senior leadership to effectively support their employees who suffer periods of mental ill health. “Mental health awareness training has been a key part of our wellbeing offering for HR practitioners for some time, as we believe that it is an area which requires specific focus and training to ensure that employees are being looked after. We know that a commitment to confronting and managing mental health issues is in the best interest of employees and the businesses they work for.”