More than 5 million people complain of "extreme" stress in their jobs which puts them at risk of a breakdown, Britain's leading mental health charity says.

More than 5 million people complain of "extreme" stress in their jobs which puts them at risk of a breakdown, Britain's leading mental health charity says.

The pressures of the workplace are exacting a social and economic toll which can no longer be ignored, says the report by Mind. More than half of Britain's workers complain of stress and take almost 13 million days off sick as a consequence.

Stress costs the UK economy £1 in lost productivity for every £10 generated, yet less than 10 per cent of companies have a policy to deal with it, Mind found.

Its report will add to pressure on the Government to tackle the epidemic of mental problems in the country. Mental illness is now Britain's biggest social problem, worse than unemployment and "at least as important as poverty," according to Lord Layard, a Labour peer. He told a seminar organised by the Downing Street strategy unit before the election that almost a million people with mental health problems are on incapacity benefit, more than are receiving job-seeker's allowance.

The total economic cost of mental illness he estimated at £25bn of which £21bn falls on the public purse. Only one in two people with depression receives any kind of treatment yet it is of proven effectiveness, with a gain of £3,000 in productivity for every £1,000 spent, he said.

The prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression is becoming the leading public health challenge in the industrialised world. Three in 10 people take sick leave in any one year with mental distress yet fewer than one in 10 of these receives specialist treatment such as psychological counselling, according to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health.

The Mind survey found the most stressed workers were teachers, social workers, call centre workers, prison officers and the police. Workers in the public sector suffered most stress and "macho work environments" made it difficult for staff to admit to stress for fear of affecting their career prospects.

Richard Brook, the chief executive of Mind, said: "Employers cannot afford to ignore the ever-increasing levels of occupational stress and the long-hours culture of working Britain.

"We urge more understanding of stress and mental health problems in the workplace. Today's competitive and pressured work environments can make it difficult for people to disclose their problems."

The report recommends that companies introduce flexible hours, keep jobs open for those off sick and allow them a gradual return to work.

The Health and Safety Executive launched a tough new code to reduce stress at work last December. The code sets six standards, including increasing support and giving staff more control, for easing the pressure and improving the quality of life in the office and on the shop floor.

Employers who ignore the standards are at risk of legal action, the HSE said.

The House of Lords awarded more than £70,000 last year to Alan Barber, a former head of maths at East Bridgwater secondary school in Somerset, who left with a stress-related illness after being given extra duties and losing his deputies.

The case established that an "autocratic and bullying style of leadership" that is "unsympathetic" to complaints of occupational stress is a factor that courts can take into account in deciding claims.

Employers also have a duty to act if they know an employee is at risk from stress, the judges ruled.

Christine Greenhough, 52, actuary: 'I had started to crumble ...'

Christine Greenhough, 52, was a successful actuary in a pensions consultancy when she suffered stress which ended in a


"Some of us have to speak out or the stigma will never be lifted," she said from her home in Stanmore, Middlesex. "Organisations must address the macho culture that makes it unacceptable to admit failure and seek help. There is not a lot of understanding of mental distress."

Her company had moved her job to London where she had to deal with new clients while maintaining her old clients in another location. Tight deadlines and a heavy workload contributed to the pressure.

On her way to a meeting one morning, she became tearful and had to stop the car because she couldn't see. She realised that she could no longer cope.

"I had started to crumble the previous day but I thought with a good night's sleep I would be better. I was taken aback by the speed with which my body closed down. You think you can carry on but you can't."

She went on sick leave and was treated in a clinic. She was frightened of meeting people and suffered panic attacks. But with the help of a private counsellor who specialised in treating people with stress she slowly recovered her confidence.

When she returned to work six months later she found she could cope with some tasks but remained fragile. "People thought I seemed confident but the trouble arose as soon as things went out of control. That is a daily occurrence in most workplaces."

She said her colleagues were supportive out of their own kindness but the company had no formal policy for dealing with the consequences of stress.

Four years later, she is off antidepressants, has learnt to manage her anxiety and is retraining as an adult education lecturer.