Tens of thousands of people did not claim universal credit at the start of the pandemic because they felt too ashamed to take out benefits, often despite struggling to pay rent and bills, according to a study.

The perceived stigma around the benefits – some people feeling, for example, that they were for ‘payers’ and ‘freelancers’ – meant that many refused state assistance or postponed their request until they encountered serious difficulties.

Even more didn’t file a claim because they said they didn’t need the benefits, thought the online-only benefit was too confusing or too complicated, or because they believed – in wrong – that they would not be eligible.

Overall, around 500,000 people in the UK chose not to qualify for universal credit, even though they likely would have been, according to the study.

Almost half of those who refused to claim benefits reported serious financial hardship, leading them to default on rent or skip meals. They were also more likely to suffer from stress or poor mental health.

Non-use of benefits, said the authors of the Well-being at social distance project, risked becoming “an invisible problem”. They urged ministers to reduce the stigma around social security and encourage those who are entitled to benefits.

There are currently around 6 million people claiming universal credit as a low income work supplement or unemployment benefit. There has been a sharp increase in usage during the pandemic as millions of jobs have been lost and working hours reduced.

Data showed that 55,000 did not apply for the plan because they were concerned about the perception of benefit recipients.

One person interviewed by the study said she believed that if he said, others “would laugh at me like I laugh at them.” [benefit claimants]”. Others felt the stigma although they also had a strong sense of entitlement to benefits, having paid taxes for many years.

Older people felt the stigma of benefits most strongly, as did migrants, some of whom expressed fear that if they claimed to be exposed to charges of “beneficial tourism”, even if they were eligible.

The researchers said the government could help change the public perception of benefits by treating claimants with dignity and ensuring that the Department of Work and Pensions and ministers speak up with respect.

Ben Baumberg Geiger, lead author of the report and senior lecturer at the University of Kent, said: “Some of these people say they don’t need benefits – but others don’t ask because they don’t understand that they are eligible, hopefully things will get better soon, or be put off by the perceived “hassle” or stigma of the claim. “

The study, funded by the Health Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council, interviewed more than 5,000 non-applicants in July and August last year.

A government spokesperson said: “We want to make sure everyone receives the support they are entitled to and we urge anyone who thinks they are eligible for universal credit to apply. Universal credit is designed to be as accessible as possible and has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the coronavirus pandemic. “