STRESS has become the main cause of long-term sickness absence for the first time across British industry, a new study revealed today.
Research in almost 600 organisations also showed a link between job security and mental health issues, with employers planning redundancies "significantly" more likely to report problems among their staff.
Stress-related absence has increased more in the public sector, according to the report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and health firm Simplyhealth.
Restructuring and organisational change were the main causes of stress among public sector workers, highlighting the impact of cuts in jobs, pay and pensions, said the report.
Public sector staff were also being affected the most by job insecurity amid redundancies planned in the coming months, it was found.
Dr Jill Miller, a CIPD adviser, said: "The survey this year shows that stress is for the first time the number one cause of long-term sickness absence, highlighting the heightened pressure many people feel under in the workplace as a result of the prolonged economic downturn.
"Stress is a particular challenge in the public sector, where the sheer amount of major change and restructuring would appear to be the root cause.
"To a large degree, managing stress is about effective leadership and people management, particularly during periods of major change and uncertainty.
"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.
"They also need to be able to spot the early signs of people being under excessive pressure or having difficulty coping at work and to provide appropriate support."
Gill Phipps, of Simplyhealth, said: "Stress can often have a negative effect on the workplace, which can result in loss of productivity and disengaged employees.
"It's therefore encouraging that almost half of employers have a well-being strategy in place, with 73pc offering counselling services and a further 69pc providing an employee assistance programme.
"These benefits allow employees access to information and advice on workplace issues, as well as emotional, psychological and personal issues, and can be a huge help during difficult times.
"Employers need to ensure that benefits such as these are communicated effectively to staff in order for employees to get the most from them."
The research found that absence levels were lowest in manufacturing firms at fewer than six days per worker per year.