Is ‘sad leave’ the new sick leave?

A sharp rise in the number of workers on sick leave is being attributed to poor mental health among UK employees.

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Helena Young

Businesses are being urged to invest in employee wellbeing, as official government figures reveal the extent to which poor health is afflicting the UK workforce.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), unemployment jumped more than expected between December 2023 and February 2024, due to a spike in the number of workers on long-term sick leave. But is this a case of sick leave, or sad leave?

Rather than an outbreak of the common cough or cold, the UK’s ailing workforce can be attributed to the employee engagement crisis, which has devastated staff morale.

Employees struggling with anxiety, depression, and mental fatigue at work are putting themselves on ‘sad leave’ as a self-help mechanism to deal with poor mental health. We take a look at the trend in more detail, and how businesses should respond.

What is ‘sad leave’?

‘Sad leave’ refers to time taken off work specifically due to low mood or feeling down. The concept hit the headlines this week following reports that the Chinese supermarket chain, Fat Dong Lai introduced the policy to all of its 12 units.

According to the organisation, employees at Fat Dong Lai can take up to 10 days of “sad leave” annually. No manager approval is needed, and it’s an option they can take when they are feeling down and unable to work. This is on top of an existing annual leave allowance of 45 days.

“Everyone has days when they are sad, that’s human nature,” said Fat Dong Lai founder, Yu Dong Lai. “When they have this ‘sad leave’, they can feel happy once more. This means that they sense the company’s understanding and support, and get a taste of work-life balance.”

Stress and burnout rising

Fat Dong Lai might have introduced sad leave as an employee benefit. But, in the absence of a company policy, UK workers are effectively taking it on themselves to go on sad leave.

According to analysis by the ONS, rising stress and burnout in the UK workforce has resulted in a record high of 2.8 million workers on long-term sick leave. This has caused the national unemployment rate to leap upwards by 4.2%.

The issue is also impacting those who remain in work. The Sick Leave Report 2024, conducted by HR systems specialist Access PeopleHR, finds that the average business reported 128 days of sick leave in 2023 – up 6% compared to 120 in 2022.

Coupled with a rise in redundancies, staff shortages are currently crippling UK productivity, resulting in excessive workloads for those who remain.

Many large employers have rolled out employee monitoring software to enforce productivity targets – a technology that critics have derided for ironically creating a toxic work culture that causes further anxiety for employees.

Annual leave

Typically, holiday entitlement policies have served to take pressure off workers by ensuring they have regular breaks to relax and unwind after a stressful period at work.

However, the Sick Leave Report shows that the number of holiday days taken by UK workers dropped by 7.6% between 2022 and 2023.

The findings suggest that growing workloads are causing busy staff to shun their annual leave. Longer term, this risks heightening their levels of stress and further adding to the issue of rising absenteeism.

More support needed

Many of the contributing factors to the sick leave crisis are out of employer’s control. Bosses cannot be blamed for today’s poor economy and the painful trading conditions it has led to for many businesses.

Nonetheless, business owners must not ignore the impact. Earlier this year, research from personal injury experts found that 12% of all days lost to sick leave were due to stress, depression, and anxiety. That adds up to a huge 18 million working days lost across the UK.

With today’s workforce appearing to be underserved by traditional wellbeing policies, experts are warning employers that they must do more to prevent the rise in ‘sad leave’ from pushing more workers out of the labour market.

The ONS data also shows that the number of working-age adults who want a job is at its lowest since Mar-May 2022. Jane Gratton, deputy director public policy at the British Chamber of Commerce, said, “we are concerned by the growing number of people not looking for work.

“More must be done to help people with ill health stay in work and to help employers understand how best to support them.”

Read about supportive policies for employee mental health:

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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