The Great British cover up: workers fear stigma over invisible health conditions

26 June 2018

New research has revealed that 34% of Brits have lied over the true reason they are taking time off work when unwell, for fear of stigma in the workplace.

Our new survey of 1,000 UK adults found that employees frequently pick a ‘one-off’ or short-term health complaint when calling in sick, instead of telling the truth about reoccurring problems.

The research shows that long-term health conditions are deemed the ‘least valid’ reasons for not attending work, despite their often devastating symptoms.

Only 15% of people said that Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis were acceptable reasons to call in sick. Other often invisible long-term conditions, such as depression, anxiety, and fatigue scored even lower.

When asked for the most ‘legitimate’ reason for taking a sick day, the British public’s top three answers were short-term illnesses: vomiting (43%), flu (36%) and food poisoning (33%).

Before I call in sick to work I get extremely anxious that my colleagues will judge me for taking more time off. I often downplay my Colitis as a stomach bug as I don’t want others to think my condition will have an impact on how well I can do my job.

Sarah Brown, 34
Works in a media agency and has Ulcerative Colitis

When calling in sick, Brits cover up the real reason for their illness for fear of judgement from colleagues (32%) and feel anxious (37%), stressed (28%) and doubted (22%) when having to take time off work.  

For those with a long-term health condition, over half of respondents feel they have to downplay their condition at work, because they believe they will experience stigma in the workplace and that it will affect their careers. 

Whilst in employment I often asked my GP to put something other than Crohn’s Disease on my sick note for fear of judgement that I was unable to do my job.

Yvonne Tyree, 54
Self-employed and has Crohn's Disease

The findings are supported by our 2018 Quality of Life survey, which shows that 44% of people living with Crohn’s or Colitis in the UK today agree that their long-term health condition has affected their careers.

It’s easy to understand why. Our study also found that just under one in five workers feel ‘frustrated’ towards colleagues who are frequently off sick, and 6% feel ‘angry’ towards these colleagues.  

Living with any long-term condition is hard. Crohn’s and Colitis are a growing but hidden health crisis in UK workplaces – and people need better support and understanding to manage these conditions. Right now, too many people feel forced to downplay the severity of their illness at work because of stigma. What’s worse, the stress and anxiety experienced by employees calling in sick will only increase the already devastating symptoms of their disease. We need to break down this taboo in the workplace and help employers and colleagues understand the true impact of these hidden diseases.

Juliet Chambers
Communications Manager, Crohn's & Colitis UK