How To Take Stress Leave At Work (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Jan. 6, 2021
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Stress is an unavoidable part of life, but if you feel that it’s seriously hindering your ability to work effectively, you may want to consider taking stress leave. According to research, roughly 20% of Americans experience mental illness each year, and around half of adults will experience mental illness at some point in their life. Know that you’re not alone in your battle against stress.

So whether it’s untenable deadlines, conflict with coworkers or your boss, or other life stressors are impeding your work performance, don’t overlook taking stress leave as an option.

What Is Stress Leave?

Stress leave is a type of leave of absence employees can take to cope with stress-related issues. Note that “stress leave” isn’t a technical term and instead falls under the umbrella of “medical leave.”

As such, it’s covered under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which guarantees certain employees unpaid leave with no threat of job or benefits loss for up to 12 workweeks.

Employees may feel that stress leave is necessary when mental health issues are so severe that they cannot be resolved through a short break from work. If you’re experiencing any of the following situations, you may be eligible for stress leave:

  • Unable to effectively perform your job’s responsibilities due to stress levels

  • Your personal life has been seriously harmed due to work-related stressors

  • You’re experiencing anxiety or depression (confirmed by a medical professional) as a result of your workload

Why Is Stress Leave Necessary?

Employees need stress leave to cope with any number of work-related stressors, which may include any of the following:

  • Dysfunctional work-life balance. If you’re entirely unable to genuinely “unplug” from your work, then you may feel like you don’t have sufficient energy to devote to other areas of your life. You don’t have a minute to fix yourself a proper meal, let alone practice self-care.

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  • Workplace conflict. Working alongside condescending coworkers, office bullies, or folks who get away with harassment is a recipe for unmanageable levels of stress in the workplace. Ultimately, you have to spend a lot of your waking life with these people, and when you’re surrounded by toxicity, stress is sure to creep in.

  • Overworked. Burnout is a real phenomenon, and sometimes there’s no way to get out from under a mountain of work other than taking stress leave.

    Unrealistic deadlines, duties that fall outside the normal purview of your job title, a lack of energy, and cynicism about your work are all factors in burnout that could require a period of stress leave to cope with.

How to Request Stress Leave

Requesting any leave of absence will depend on your employer’s policies, so it’s essential to consult your employee handbook before initiating the process. However, there are a few steps you should take regardless of your company:

  1. Check if your employer is covered under the FMLA. The FMLA only covers employers with 50+ employees within a 75-mile radius of the workplace. Only employees who have worked for a company for at least a year and clocked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the past year are eligible to apply for leave under the FMLA.

  2. Research your state’s laws. The FMLA acts as a baseline minimum requirement that every state must abide by. However, each state has its own family and medical leave laws, and they can only ever be more generous than the federal one. Contact your state’s department of labor for more thorough information.

  3. Consult your employee handbook. These laws are great for protecting employee rights, but you may not even need to delve into legal scenarios depending on your company’s policies. Your employee handbook should cover medical leaves of absence, but if you’re still unsure how they work, reach out to a trusted person in human resources for advice.

    Your company’s intranet may also have the forms you and/or your doctor need to fill out when applying for medical leave.

  4. Meet with a healthcare provider. Remember that stress leave falls under the umbrella of medical leave, so you’ll need to provide documentation of your illness. The earlier you can schedule an appointment, the sooner you can request stress leave.

    Be honest with your therapist or healthcare provider about the symptoms you’re experiencing so that she can provide appropriate recommendations.

    Specifically, you’ll want to address your workplace stressors, the mental and physical toll they take on you, how stress hinders your work performance, and what coping methods you’ve tried adopting. If you’re abusing substances or having thoughts of self-harm, be upfront with your doctor; they can’t legally divulge anything specific to your employer.

    Even if you cannot take stress leave, seeing a medical professional about your mental health is never a bad idea.

  5. Get a doctor’s note. Ask your doctor or therapist straight up if they will support you in requesting a leave of absence. You can either ask for a specified duration or ask them for their recommendation.

    It’s vital that you bring along any HR documents you need a doctor to sign. Make copies of any and all completed forms before submitting them to your company.

    Note that while you are giving your employer permission to contact your healthcare provider, they cannot share any specific information, other than that they recommend a medical leave of absence.

  6. Give your employer notice in advance. Federal and state laws require that you provide adequate notice to your employer before requesting a leave of absence. Under the FMLA, employees must provide at least 30 days’ notice for easily foreseeable situations like expected childbirth or a planned medical procedure.

    However, there is also a stipulation that if 30 days’ notice is impossible, then an employee must provide notice “as soon as practicable.” Note that FMLA guidelines in each state might be more generous, requiring only 15 days’ notice.

    Still, aim to give 30 days’ notice, so that you’re covered under both state and federal guidelines. Put your notice in writing; don’t just leave it to an undocumented conversation.

  7. Submit your request. Once you’ve got all the necessary paperwork, you can submit your request for a medical leave of absence. You are not obligated to divulge anything specific about your condition or your treatment plans. Clarify the exact dates you’re requesting off, the general reason (medical), and that you’re operating under the FMLA or state laws.

    Your employer must let you know if you’re eligible within five days of your request. Try to be as clear and forthright with your employer as you feel comfortable with, as more information can help your chances of success.

Other Considerations for Stress Leave

We’ve covered the basics so far, but you probably have a few more questions. Consider the following options when you’re thinking about taking stress leave:

  • Getting paid leave. Under the FMLA, your employer is not obligated to pay you during your stress leave. Not getting paid might only compound your stress, but there are options to get paid during your stress leave. Some jurisdictions offer paid leave, but they are few and far between.

    If you’re not one of the lucky few who live in one of these jurisdictions, you still have the option of short term disability (STD) benefits. Many employees have STD benefits covered through their employer or private insurance. Ask your HR department if your company provides STD benefits.

    In particular, pay attention to the following:

    • How much notice you must provide

    • The waiting period

    • The pay cap (typically around 60% of your weekly salary, but may change based on your length of employment)

    • Duration of benefits

    • Exclusions based on pre-existing conditions

    • Your employer’s policy regarding using PTO and/or sick days before receiving STD benefits

  • Intermittent stress leave. So far, we’ve been talking about stress leave as an all-or-nothing concept, but it doesn’t have to be. You can approach your healthcare provider or company about taking intermittent stress leave.

    In this scenario, your work hours would be reduced; you could work fewer days each week or fewer hours each day, depending on what you and your doctor feel would be most helpful in coping with stress.

    Intermittent stress leave can also combine with regular stress leave – for example, taking a full week off for stress leave, then initiating a reduced schedule after. This might be an especially attractive option for someone who doesn’t have STD benefits and wishes to continue receiving pay while reducing their work-related stressors.

  • If you’re ineligible under the FMLA or state laws. Employment laws serve as the bare minimum that every employer must abide by. However, just because your company is too small or you haven’t worked there long enough to qualify, it doesn’t mean you can’t request a leave of absence all the same. The only difference is that your job won’t be protected in this scenario as it is under the FMLA and state guidelines.

    Work with your employer to find a workable solution. Every company will have its own policies regarding leaves of absence, so consult someone from HR or check over your employee handbook for more details.

Make the Most of Your Stress Leave

Stress leave is not meant to be a vacation. You’re supposed to use this time to address your relationship with stress and find a way to move forward. As such, we recommend making the most of your stress leave by adhering to the following steps:

  • Take care of yourself. Now that you don’t have 40+ hours a week dedicated to work, you have a lot more time for self-care. Engage with hobbies you enjoy but had no time for with a full work schedule.

    Get more sleep, eat healthy foods, and exercise. See friends, meditate, spend some time outdoors – whatever it takes to recharge your batteries and get to feeling like your old self again.

  • Identify your most significant stressors. Take this time to get to the root causes of your stress. Whether it’s a lack of sleep or a demanding workload, figure out what exactly is causing you debilitating levels of stress. That way, you can formulate a plan of action for your return to the workplace.

  • Continue seeing a medical professional. Your healthcare provider will likely provide a treatment plan during your leave of absence. Take advantage of this time by seeing a therapist or other medical professional to learn new ways to cope with stress. You can also address any physical issues that arose from your stressful lifestyle.

    After all, stress leave won’t do much good if you enter back into your job without making any adjustments.

  • Set goals. Think about what you want to achieve from your stress leave. Imagine all the positive changes you’ll have once you get into the habit of stress reduction. If you enter into a stress leave thinking it’s just a temporary reprieve, and you’ll be returning to the same crummy experience once it’s over, that’s not a recipe for success.

    On the other hand, if you discover that remaining at your job and managing your stress are mutually exclusive, it might be time to consider a different job. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being honest with yourself and admitting that your position just requires too much of you to lead a happy, healthy life.

Returning to Work

We sincerely hope that your stress leave affords you plenty of breathing room to start feeling good about yourself and your work again. But it’s important not to hit the ground running when you make your return to the workplace.

The following tips apply to someone who took an ordinary stress leave because an employee on intermittent stress leave would still be coming to the workplace periodically throughout their leave:

  • Think about your explanations. Even the least gossipy office will be a little curious about where you’ve been. They may know you were on medical leave and come to you with concerns about your health. To avoid feeling put on the spot, formulate a response.

    It can be as thorough or as vague as you wish – it’s your health issue, after all. Someone who got their spleen taken out wouldn’t feel obligated to disclose all the grisly details of the procedure, and so you shouldn’t feel required to divulge tons of information either. A simple “managing some health issues” is plenty sufficient.

  • Consider taking it slow. You’re chock full of healthy coping mechanisms and ready to put them to the test. We still don’t recommend jumping into your old workload immediately. See if you can work remotely or work fewer hours or days at first. That way, you can keep close tabs on how you feel before you get piled on with work again.

  • Talk to your supervisor and HR. During your transition back into the workplace, it’s crucial that you feel supported by your company. If you and your doctor determined certain physical elements of your workplace were compounding your stress, discuss making reasonable changes.

    Maybe you just need a more aesthetically-pleasing work station or space in a quieter region in the office. Or perhaps you’ve developed meditation techniques and wish to take more frequent breaks to allow time to practice them. Something about your life at work has to change, or you wouldn’t have needed stress leave in the first place.

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Chris Kolmar

Author

Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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