What is Stress Leave?

Stress leave is like sick leave, but rather than taking time off to recover from an injury or an illness, an employee takes time off to recover from the negative side effects of stress.

And let’s not forget that 2020 has been a particularly stressful year for everyone. Enforced government lockdowns hit a lot of people hard. Many people will have been worried sick by the uncertainty – will they still even have a job this time next year?

But even for people who could depend on job security throughout lockdown, 2020 has been no picnic. If your company doesn’t have a good remote working policy, employees may have struggled to adjust to working life under lockdown.

The situation is stressful enough as it is, but one study showed that many employees worked up to three hours a day longer than necessary under lockdown. This is the sort of behaviour that could eventually lead to employee burnout and high employee turnover.

Though even without the pressures of a pandemic, study after study is suggesting that stress among UK workers is reaching a crisis point.

One wellbeing charity recently found that 50% of workers feel “close to breaking point”. An Investors in People survey revealed that a third of workers have, at one point, considered leaving their jobs due to work-related stress.

When Might an Employee Take Stress Leave?

If the pressure’s getting too high, you might advise an employee to take a short break. You might suggest taking a few days off to depressurise so that when they’re ready, they can return to work fully refreshed.

This isn’t an example of stress leave. Stress leave is for situations where the stress starts to become a health hazard. In short, stress leave will help you avoid employee burnout – a situation where workers feel extremely exhausted, whether briefly or for a prolonged period. This could be physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, or even all three. If employees reach this stage, paid stress leave can help them recover.

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) suggests that stress is responsible for as much as 40% of all work-related sickness. It’s vital that you understand the relationship between stress, mental ill-health, physical ill-health, and employee absenteeism. And stress leave is crucial if you want to support your employees on this front.

3 Ways to Manage Stress Leave In Your Business

Setting up a stress leave policy is a similar process to set up any sort of sick leave policy. You’ll need to consider the processes and workflow, and you’ll need to find a way to communicate your policies to employees across your company. You can read our full guide to creating an absence management policy here.

But when it comes to stress leave, there are a few additional factors you’ll need to take into consideration.

1. Understand the Stigma, and Fight It

Have you heard of presenteeism? This is where employees insist upon working, even when they’re not necessarily feeling well enough to do so. Obviously, this is bad for your employees’ health. It’s also very bad for business. Unwell employees aren’t very happy or productive employees!

According to a recent CIPD study, instances of presenteeism have tripled since 2010. It’s a serious issue that suggests a certain uncomfortable truth: We’re a nation of workaholics, and we hate the idea that people might think we’re not well enough to work. So we’ll work regardless, even at the risk to our health, our colleagues, and our employers.

And if we feel this way about work and physical illness, the situation is even worse when it comes to mental ill-health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the stigma attached to mental ill-health can make it harder for people with mental health problems to get the help and support they need.

Stress is a mental health issue. So if you want to create a stress leave policy for your business, this is the first challenge you’ll have to overcome. You’ll have to make it clear to everyone that stress and mental ill-health is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. You’ll then have to communicate that you understand the issue and that if anyone ever needs to take time off to manage their stress, then you have policies in place to let them do just that.

How can you fight this stigma? It’s not the sort of change you can achieve overnight. In the short-term, you could arrange for mental health first aid training for managers or for teams. In the long-term, your aim should be to create the sort of company culture that values open communication, where nobody ever feels like they have to suffer in silence.

2. Manage Expectations

When creating your stress leave policy, you need to define and communicate just what you expect from employees.

At what point will you decide that an employee needs to take stress leave? Will it be up to your managers to learn to spot the signs that an employee’s approaching burnout? Will you, therefore, be suggesting to stressed employees that they take leave? In which case, how will you broach the matter without making them feel like they’ve done something wrong?

Or will it be up to employees to decide when they need to take stress leave? In which case, will you take their word that they’re suffering, or will you need to see a doctor’s note? Remember that workers have certain statutory rights here. They can “self-certify” any conditions for up to 7-days before you can legally request to see a sick note.

You also need to make it clear just what you expect from employees when they’re on sick leave. In short, you should treat employees on stress leave exactly like you’d treat employees on sick leave. Let them recover in their own time and in their own way. Don’t expect them to work while they’re on stress leave, and don’t contact them when they’re taking leave.

Again, you can learn more about managing processes, workflow, and expectations in our guide to absence management policies. You’ll also need to consider the possibility that stress could result in a long-term absence. Our guide to managing long-term sickness absence explains the factors you’ll have to think about here.

3. Define and Refine the Return to Work Process

Once the employee’s ready to return to work, you’ll need a process in place to make their return as streamlined and stress-free as possible – for both the employee and their colleagues.

Consider offering the employee a phased return. Perhaps they can work remotely, or part-time, for a short period before returning to their regular routine? Also, ask them if there are any changes you’ll need to make to their working environment before they’re ready to return.

The employee’s colleagues are bound to wonder why the employee needed to take stress leave in the first place. This is why training is so essential, to remove the stigma surrounding mental health. But to avoid any tense situations, make sure you communicate to the employee’s colleagues that you need them to be as supportive and understanding as possible. And make it clear to the employee that they’re under no obligation to tell anyone about their situation.

You’ll also need to carry out a return to work interview. This might provide insights into just what made the employee feel so stressed in the first place. Maybe there are a few things you could change, to make the workplace less stressful for everyone.

You can read our full guide to setting up an effective return to work process here.

Prevention is Better Than Cure

Stress might be reaching epidemic levels in the UK. Introduce a stress leave policy in your business, and you’ll send a strong message to your employees: That you care about their welfare, that you understand what they’re going through, and that you’re here to support them.

But while some level of stress is unavoidable, if your employees get so stressed that they need to take time off, then it might suggest a deeper issue. There might be something seriously wrong with your business.

Stress leave is inevitable, but you need to address the underlying causes of stress in the workplace. Make your employees’ mental health and wellbeing your number one priority, and you should see a drop in all forms of absenteeism – not just stress leave.

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