Nearly a third of fit notes handed out by GPs are now for mental health problems, official figures from the NHS show.
The new data – from the first such investigation across the NHS – reveals that in total, more than 5 million people are being signed off work every year.
Mental health and behavioural conditions were the most common reason by far, making up 31 per cent of cases, with a 14 per cent rise in notes relating to anxiety and stress in one year.
This makes them the most common reason for people to take time off work, ahead of musculoskeletal diseases, were the second most common reason given for issuing the notes, the data shows.
There was a 14 per cent rise in notes relating to anxiety and stress between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
The report follows the 2010 introduction of the “fit note” system by the Department of Work and Pensions. The system was intended to end a “sicknote culture” and encourage GPs and employers to find ways to get employees back in to work by finding ways to ensure pressures were manageable.
But the figures show that in the majority cases employees were simply signed off for at least three months, with just one in 20 fit notes suggesting adjustments that could be made.
Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, said:
“These figures explain why the NHS is now putting mental health front and centre, in what was recently independently described as ‘the world’s most ambitious effort to treat depression, anxiety and other common mental illnesses’.”
He said funding for services had risen by £1.4bn in the last three years, with an extra 120,000 people getting treatment.
“When it comes to mental health, what’s good for patients is also good for taxpayers, because untreated mental health problems directly affect work, unemployment and benefits,”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists said the findings were “alarming” and pointed to a need for more to be done to help get people back to work.
Dr Jed Boardman said not enough was being done to facilitate a person’s return to work.
“GPs will write suggestions on the fit note, such as staggered work days or agreeing specific goals for the returning employer – both parties need to be more active in tailoring these suggestions to that person,”
“Almost half of benefits claimants of Employment and Support Allowance in England are receiving payments as the result of mental and behavioural disorders
The figures show that that Knowsley, in Merseyside, had the highest number of notes compared to its working age population, while Richmond in south west London had the lowest.
A Government spokesman said:
“We’re helping thousands of people to remain in, or get back into work after a period of ill-health.
“We’re determined to go further, and these statistics will provide us with a better understanding of why people take sickness absence in different areas across the country.”
“Supporting people with mental health conditions is a top priority, which is why we’ve commissioned two expert-led reviews and have invested a record £11.6bn into mental health services.”