Stress-related absences are on the rise - but is it really okay to be absent for stress?

If lunch is for wimps in the banking world, taking time off for stress is almost unimaginable - which is one reason that Barclays' head of compliance and former head of the Financial Services Authority Hector Sants hit the headlines when he did just that earlier this month.

Barclays was sympathetic. "Unfortunately, Hector has been diagnosed as suffering from exhaustion and stress – the cumulative effects of five years at the helm of the FSA during a tumultuous period and having thrown himself headlong into his Barclays role since the beginning of 2013," it said in a statement.

"He is following medical advice and will be taking a leave of absence until the end of the year."

Two years ago, Lloyds group chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio's took a three-month break from work for the same reason.

But many employees are a lot less open about suffering from stress, believing - rightly or wrongly - that they'll be penalised if they complain. A survey carried out by the mental health charity Mind three years ago found that while one in five workers has taken time off for stress, almost all gave their employer other reasons for their absence, such as food poisoning or a sick child.

Indeed, Mind's latest research shows that 42 per cent of workers believe that stress is regarded as a sign of weakness in their workplace. Only a third think their employer treats time off for stress as seriously as time off for physical illness, and more than four in ten believe that it's generally seen as an excuse for something else. As many as 45 per cent said they were expected to get on with their work without talking about whether they felt stressed.

"These figures show that stress remains the elephant in the room in many workplaces. It also highlights the worrying disparity between how managers and other members of staff view their organisation's approach to mental wellbeing," says Mind CEO Paul Farmer.

"There is a real danger that companies are neglecting workplace mental health, with huge implications for staff wellbeing; not to mention productivity, motivation and sickness absence."

Claire Dawson, principal lawyer, employment, at Slater & Gordon, says that many of her clients suffer from stress, but are often fearful of reporting it in case they're seen as not being up to the job.

"I think there's a reluctance on the part of a lot of people to say they are experiencing stress in the workplace," she says. "People sometimes see it as a sign of weakness, and it can be stigmatised by employers."

By law, of course, employers are required to treat stress-related absence in exactly the same way as a broken leg. "Once you're signed off by your doctor, the employer shouldn't be distinguishing between someone signed off with stress and someone signed off with anything else when implementing its sickness absence procedures," says Dawson.

"Stress won't necessarily amount to a disability, although it could in some cases. But the employer would be entitled to suggest ways to rehabilitate the employee into the workplace."

There are signs that British workers are becoming a bit more confident about reporting symptoms of stress. Indeed, a recent government report found that more than a third of sick notes - or 'fit notes', as they're now called - are given for 'mild to moderate mental health disorders', such as depression, anxiety and stress.

Meanwhile, this year's annual Absence Management survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and Simplyhealth shows that, for the first time, stress has become the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees.

It's a particular problem in companies that are planning redundancies in the next six months, and in public sector organisations, and the main causes are restructuring, public-sector cuts to jobs and pensions and pay freezes.

Companies will need to take the problem more seriously, says CIPD adviser Dr Jill Miller. "To a large degree, managing stress is about effective leadership and people management, particularly during periods of major change and uncertainty," she says.

"Line managers need to focus on regaining the trust of their employees and openly communicating throughout the change process to avoid unnecessary stress and potential absences."