What is Stress Leave, and How to Apply It In Your Business

Andrew Buck September 22, 2021

It happens to the best of us – life just gets to be a bit much and things come at us from all different angles.

Excessive stress is overwhelming. It affects our mood, performance, and even our physical health. 

Your employees are no different. And as a manager, you should do all you can to manage and minimize stress for your team members. 

Because when they’re feeling happy, healthy, and motivated, that’s when they go the extra mile and perform at their best. 

Offering stress leave is one way to help your employees recover from stress-related illnesses, or prevent these illnesses altogether.

In this article, we’ll discuss what stress leave is and why you should offer it to your team. We’ll also discuss how to minimize employee stress and prevent the need for stress leave in the first place.

What is Stress Leave?

Stress leave is the time an employee takes off from work to recover from serious bouts of stress, or even stress-related physical illnesses.

Stress leave is different from a mental health day, which is a leave that typically lasts only a few days to refresh and re-energize when feeling burned out.

Stress leave is usually a more serious matter. It’s when stress has affected an employee significantly to the point they can’t carry on with their tasks and duties as normal.

It’s usually a bit of a longer leave that allows the employee to adequately recover from their stress-related symptoms. In some cases, a stress leave recommendation may even come from the employee’s doctor

Here are some indications that your employee may need to consider a period of stress leave:

These are not issues that tend to go away on their own, which is why a leave of absence may be best for their mental health.

Is it Required By Law to Provide Stress Leave?

If you’re in the United States, then you might be required to provide sick leave by law if your company is eligible for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Severe stress, or other stress-related conditions like insomnia, nausea, digestive issues, etc., could all qualify for sick leave under FMLA. But typically, your employee’s doctor would have to recommend stress leave in these circumstances. 

Your employees are eligible for sick leave (which may include stress leave with a doctor’s diagnosis) through FMLA if the following are true. 

Note that FMLA does not require that you provide paid stress leave. But eligible employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family or medical reasons, and you have to guarantee that their position will be there for them when they return.

If your company does not fall under FMLA regulations, offering your staff a paid leave of absence for stress or mental health issues is up to you. Though not legally bound, it might still make sense for you to offer stress leave to your employees, as we will discuss below. 

Why You Should Offer Employees Stress Leave

As mentioned before, stress leave is more severe than a case of temporary burnout that can be eased with a day or two of mental health leave. 

Stress leave comes into play when there are more significant symptoms present, and usually, it takes a leave of absence of at least 1-2 weeks to be effective. 

Before approving such long leaves, it is vital that your HR team talks to the team member to assess the situation. You could also require a physician’s recommendation when an employee is requesting stress leave.

But assuming one does actually need stress leave, here are some reasons why you should consider making them available to your employees, even if you don’t fall under FMLA. 

Stress is a Real & Serious Health Condition

When stress is severe enough, it should fall under the category of sick leave and medical leave. 

Many of us tend to think of stress as something that’s “just mental” and we don’t recognize it for what it is. Stress can be a serious health condition, that affects various systems in the body. 

Here are just a few examples of illnesses that can be caused, or exacerbated, by stress and similar mental health issues:

Needless to say, it can be rather tough to focus on work when one is dealing with these physical symptoms. 

Over time, if one isn’t able to manage stress levels, it can lead to more serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression. 

Even though stress can be severe to the point it is debilitating and leaves one unable to perform their duties, stress leave hasn’t gained much traction in the corporate world until very recently. 

But more and more companies are recognizing that severe work-related stress should not be treated any differently than other health condition, like the flu or a migraine.

Engaged, More Productive Employees

You already know that your employees do their best work when they’re feeling good, and full of confidence and excitement.

That’s impossible when an employee is dealing with mental and physical fatigue, and feeling burned out. 

When working through periods of great stress, many employees will perform at a fraction of their potential, and you’ll be paying for their dip in productivity this whole time.

Stress leave from work can provide them with enough of a break to seek the help they need to recover both mentally and physically. Oftentimes the employee will return to work after their leave of absence free from stress, and ready to give their all to the job again.

Stressed Employees Can Be Contagious

Just like you wouldn’t want someone with the flu to show up at work, you also don’t want someone dealing with severe stress to bring their negativity to the workplace. 

It might not be an airborne disease, but stress and mental health often affects those around us. Letting one team member continue to work while suffering from severe stress tends to bring the rest of the team down, and can result in more widespread medical issues in your team.

Don’t treat the staff member like a leper, but do understand that stress is a medical condition that can spread and infect your whole team if you’re not careful.

Prevention vs. Cure: How to Prevent the Need for Stress Leave

It’s a good idea to offer stress leave to promote wellbeing in your workplace. But it should be the last resort when there are no other good options.

Losing an employee for a few weeks can be costly, in terms of both compensation and lost productivity. So if these absences can be avoided, it’s obviously for the best. You don’t want to end up in a situation where you frequently have employees within your company needing leave for stress or mental illness.

The ideal strategy is to create a positive culture that minimizes stress in the first place, and nips it in the bud whenever these issues start to arise.

Here are a few ideas that can help you minimize stress among your employees.

Generous Leave Allowance

Providing a generous paid time off allowance will reduce stress and burnout, and prevent long employee absences within your team.

If you allow employees enough leave days, they can take time off as they need to better manage their workload. This will make it less likely for them to get over-stressed, and prevent the need for stress leave from work, which can be lengthy and expensive.

You should also ensure that taking leave is encouraged, and the process to request leave is simple. That’s why a leave management software like Flamingo is perfect for helping protect against serious cases of work-related stress in your team.

Try Flamingo free today, and start running your elite team the way it deserves.

Give Employees Space for Work/Life Balance

Recognize that your employees are unique individuals, and they each have their own passions, interests, and social commitments. 

Employers should understand that employees will be happier and more productive when they get enough time to spend with their family, see friends, or just do non work related things.

If your team members are able to maintain the right balance between their work life and personal life, they’ll be naturally happier and less stressed.

Don’t push your staff to work too much overtime, or insist on unrealistic work hours on a consistent basis.

Also, flexible work schedules work great at promoting a healthy work/life balance. A flexible schedule is among the top desirable employment benefits for workers, so it could also help you attract the top performers to your company.

Manage Employee Workload

Try to make sure that no employee gets overloaded with too many tasks and responsibilities.

If there are times when one team member has too much to do, maybe because he or she excels at a certain type of task, then be sure to allow them some time off later and have the rest of the team pitch in to make up for it. 

Balancing the workload evenly among your team will make sure everyone’s workload remains manageable, which means they’re less likely to get overwhelmed. It will keep employees happy and prevent the need for stress leave.

Create a Positive Work Environment

Last but not least, try to create a positive work environment.

A place of work that is full of people that are driven and motivated to perform at their best, but also ones that are optimistic, have a can-do attitude, and are generally pleasant to be around.

Enthusiasm and a positive outlook are infectious. And when you have an entire team of people that encouraging each other, supporting each other, and challenging each other to be better, you can expect good things to happen.

A lot of this comes down to the people you hire in the first place. But you can also provide training, team-building exercises and outings, and social events to create a bond between your employees.

Final Thoughts on Stress Leave

Stress-related illness is a real illness, just like the flu, food poisoning or a migraine. And as an employer, you should recognize the need for leave to recover from these illnesses.

If your company falls under FMLA, then you may be required by law to provide stress leave, if recommended by your employee’s doctor.

Even if you don’t fall under FMLA, it is still be a good idea to allow stress leave to promote employee wellbeing. 

The best strategy, however, is to minimize stress in the first place so there is less need for staff to take stress leave. You can do this by building a positive work environment, not overworking your staff, and giving ample opportunity for your team members to take leave, refresh, and maintain a positive work/life balance.

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