In a survey of 1,000 office-based employees in the UK, the U.S., Singapore and the UAE, 35.8% admitted to lying about taking a sick day, with the most common reason being because of stress (32.1%). As the world’s attention turns to the mental health impact of Covid-19, these confessions raise questions around the stigma that remains in workplaces.

The data has been revealed in a recent report, Employee Perceptions of Mental and Physical Health in the Workplace, published by international health benefits provider, Aetna International. The report explores the views of employees in regards to taking sick days, discussing health issues at work and the impact a mental health diagnosis can play in reducing their experiences of stigma.

Employees were asked whether they had ever lied to their employer about their reasons for taking a sick day. While ‘wanting a day off’ was the second most frequently cited reason for lying, the most common reasons overall related to mental and emotional health:

  • 32.1% of employees lied to their employers because they were feeling stressed
  • 29.6% of employees lied because they were feeling down
  • 24.3% of employees lied because they weren’t feeling themselves
  • 22.6% of workers lied because they didn’t think their boss would understand

To further complicate the issue, results also revealed that employees are twice as likely to take time off for a physical health issue than a mental health problem (66% versus 34% respectively). The data therefore suggests that while people take time off for mental health, they may not admit the reasons.

Regional differences

Regionally, employees in Singapore are the most honest when it comes to telling their employer about the reasons for taking a sick day. In fact:

  • 74.5% of employees in Singapore have never lied to their employer about the reasons for taking a sick day, which is higher than the global average of 64.2%

Employees in the U.S. however, are the most likely to lie to their employer:

  • A significant 45.3% of employees in the U.S. admit that they have lied to their employer about the reasons for taking a sick day, which is higher than the global average of 35.8%

The survey also showed that across all regions, only 29.9% of employees took zero sick days in 2019. This could suggest that workers are either rarely ill or are deciding to work despite their illness. In terms of region:

  • The UK had the highest number of employees who didn’t take a sick day at 41% (higher than the global average of 29.9%)
  • The UK also had the lowest number of employees taking 11+ sick days, suggesting either a healthier population or a potential stigma around taking sick days in the UK

Diagnosis and sick days

The survey also revealed that employees with a diagnosed mental health issue are most likely to lie to their employer about taking a sick day than those without one. In fact:

  • More than half of employees (51.7%) diagnosed with mental health issues admitted to lying to their employee about taking a sick day, while only 23.3% of employees without mental health issues answered the same
  • Employees with an undiagnosed mental health issue are more likely to lie about a sick day due to stress (44.7%) and feeling down (42.4%) than those with a diagnosis (25.6% and 28% respectively)

Dr Hemal Desai, Global Medical Director at Aetna International comments:

“As a third of employees feel the need to conceal mental illness, anxiety or stress-related reasons for taking a sick day, it’s clear that there is still a high degree of stigma around mental health in the workplace. While some of this will be cultural, there’s clearly more that needs to be done to help line managers and employees navigate mental health at work.

“Employers can take steps to improve openness and transparency on mental health issues in their workplace. They can better communicate their policies on mental and behavioural health as well as the legal framework. It is important for management to foster a safe environment for employees to share the nature of their personal illness with their line manager – be it mental or physical. In this day and age, it’s not acceptable for employees to fear workplace discrimination when they’re experiencing mental illness. Instead, employers can work towards creating a culture of support when it comes to employee health and well-being. It’s particularly important at the moment as people and organisations alike grapple with the ‘second curve’ of the COVID-19 pandemic in the form of emotional and psychological issues.”