Small businesses were hit hardest by employees suffering from stress as a result of changes to the furlough scheme, new data suggests.

Absence intelligence company e-days, said the figures suggest stress levels have spiked twice in 2020. Just 0.85% of absence was stress-related in April, when 42% of workers at employers with fewer than 250 employees were furloughed - the lowest figure of the year.

However, when the government announced updates to the scheme in July and August, stress-related absence rose to 3.4% and 3.2% in SMEs, respectively.

The trend continues through October when, prior to the announcement of a month-long lockdown in England, the furlough scheme was due to end. Stress-related absence hit its peak of 4.3% in SMEs as workers grew uncertain about their future.

That figure is in stark contrast to stress-related absences at employers with more than 250 staff, which dropped to 1.7% - it’s lowest rate since the start of the pandemic.

Steve Arnold, CEO of e-days, said:

“Businesses need to prepare for a spring stress spike, whereby a number of factors are looking to combine to create the perfect storm for SMEs.

“Employees returning from furlough, the promise of a springtime vaccine and related appointments, the possibility of reduced rules and a return to normal sickness levels, and the rush to book holidays - this could cause the most dramatic absence management challenge of the pandemic so far. As we approach the end of 2020 it would be wise to review patterns from the year and use them to plan for the year ahead, to ensure absence management strategies are in place to manage shortages in resourcing, as well as wellbeing and productivity among staff.”