By Daniel Hunter

Workers in Britain are fearful of being judged when they need to call in sick, according to new research from AXA PPP Healthcare.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of workers they won’t tell their line manager the real reason for their absence when calling in sick because they’re afraid of being judged. A further 15% say they’re afraid they won’t be believed.

But are employers doing enough, if anything, to allay those fears? Not according to AXA PPP Healthcare.

The research found that employers are showing unsympathetic attitudes towards illness. Only 42% of the senior managers polled agree that flu is a serious enough reason for an employee to be absent from work, with 39% concurring that back pain is also sufficiently serious. The figure falls even further for elective surgery such as a knee replacement operation or cataract surgery, with only 35% of employers accepting this as a valid reason for absence, and only 22% believing that suffering from a migraine warrants time off work.

Employees are much more likely to lie to their boss about the reason for being off sick if the cause of sickness is related to mental rather than to physical health. While around three quarters (77%) say they would tell their boss the truth if their sickness was due to a physical ailment such as back pain, flu or an accidental injury, only two in five (39%) would tell the truth if they had to call in sick due to stress, anxiety or depression.

The reluctance to disclose mental health issues is more pronounced in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Employees working for SMEs were less likely to tell their line manager that they were taking time off for stress, anxiety or depression than workers in larger sized firms. While 44% of workers in larger sized companies said they would tell their boss if they were off due to stress, anxiety or depression, only 37% of those working in SMEs said they would do likewise.

Glen Parkinson, SME Director for AXA PPP healthcare, said: “With managers showing so little understanding of or support for employees suffering from illness, it’s not difficult to see why employees worry about phoning in sick. Employers need to challenge this blinkered attitude, both for their own benefit as well as that of their employees. In many cases it is more productive for an employee to take a day off to recover from a spell of illness rather than to come into work, with diminished productivity and, for likes of colds and flu, the potential to spread their illness to workmates.

“Employers need to trust employees to take the appropriate time off sick and, where practicable, consider allowing them to work from home. Showing sympathy and flexibility when employees are unwell is crucial to maintaining a healthy and committed workforce, which in the long term creates a healthier business.”