A survey for the charity Mental Health UK found that nine out of 10 people had experienced high or extreme levels of stress in the past year
"We live in unprecedented times, and life outside work has become increasingly difficult due to the cost-of-living crisis and pressures on public services, while global challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence fuel stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.” Brian Down, chief executive, Mental Health UK
A third of adults have experienced high or extreme levels of pressure at work, with 20% requiring time off as a result of stress in the past year, a survey has found.
The findings, published by the charity Mental Health UK in The Burnout Report, are based on a survey by YouGov of 2,060 adults, 1,132 of whom were workers. The survey found that nine out of 10 people had experienced “high or extreme levels of stress” last year, while just over a third (35%) had experienced high or extreme levels of pressure at work.
Brian Down, the chief executive of Mental Health UK, warned that the UK was “rapidly becoming a burnt-out nation” with a “worrying number of people” taking time off due to poor mental health caused by stress. He said: “High levels of work absence due to poor mental health are a major challenge, but its causes are complex.”
Down added: “Public attitudes and understanding towards mental health and work have changed, particularly as the workplace transformed overnight in response to the pandemic.
“Meanwhile, we live in unprecedented times, and life outside work has become increasingly difficult due to the cost-of-living crisis and pressures on public services, while global challenges such as climate change and artificial intelligence fuel stress, anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.”
Mental Health UK said the report would be the first of a series of annual reports on burnout.
The YouGov survey also found 35% of people were not comfortable voicing concerns about pressure and stress to their line managers. Nearly a third said that bullying and intimidation by colleagues had been the cause of their stress in the last year.
There were significant differences in age, the survey found. Amongst workers aged 18-24, 34% had taken time off work in the last year due to poor mental health caused by stress, compared with 15% of those aged 55 or over.
Almost half (49%) of workers suggested their employers did not have a plan in place to spot signs of chronic stress.
The report noted, however, that “those working in an agile fashion are less likely to cite their working arrangement as a factor contributing to burnout.”
It urged the prime minister to hold a national summit to bring together ministers, employers and experts in an effort to create healthy workplaces and better support workers.
Not everyone is convinced that we are in the middle of a mental health crisis. Sir Simon Wessely, regius professor of psychiatry at King’s College London, told the Daily Telegraph that rates of mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder had remained the same over the past 50-60 years. Rates of depression and anxiety, however, had risen significantly in young women aged 16-24.
Dr Lucy Foulkes, a research fellow in the department of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, told the paper that talking about mental health could backfire in unexpected ways: “If you tell people that disorders are really prevalent, they’re more likely to interpret their own symptoms in that way. When people self-identify as having depression, that predicts worse coping with their mental health, over and above what you’d predict from their level of symptoms. It could ultimately be self-fulfilling.”
She added that much mental health advice is making teenagers think they have a problem without giving them the necessary tools to manage it: “You leave them with this framework and language for understanding distress that’s very psychiatric and medical, but isn’t helpful in understanding their problems.” By encouraging people to see things “through the lens of a medical illness”, we may encourage “a sense that they can’t do anything about it; it’s fixed and can’t be changed,” she told the paper.
The figures in The Burnout Report are stark: 90% of people say they have experienced high or extreme levels of stress in the past year, while just over a third had experienced similar levels of stress at work. The numbers chime with data from other sources, which show a rise in mental ill-health among young people in particular.
The difficult question is whether this represents a genuine rise, or whether is a matter of self-perception. The fact that young people are far more likely than old people to take off work as a result of mental ill health suggests that young people may be quicker to label ordinary stress or anxiety as a sign of mental illness. Perhaps the answer is to focus less on the terminology and more on showing people how to manage stress more effectively, using the many self-help tools now available.