02 Oct 2020
Stress is a major issue for employees in the UK. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE)’s Labour Force Survey found that 49% of all working days lost in 2016/17 were due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Compare this to 2018/19, where the figure has risen to 54%.
In this article, we’ll take a look at how you should approach stress-related absence in the workplace. Also, we’ll address the issue of work-related stress, and what your responsibilities are as an employer.
Time off work for stress
Before taking time off work for stress, the employee has to make you aware of their situation.
If you have concerns, you can broach the subject with the staff member. However, we’d always recommend caution and sensitivity when handling mental health issues among staff.
Once you are aware of the situation you have a number of options. You can refer the individual to your employee assistance programme (EAP)—that’s if you have one.
Otherwise, an occupational health referral is an alternative option. If the issue is starting to affect the employee’s performance, you can have an external healthcare professional assess them.
You’ll need to agree this course of action with the employee before referral.
What’s the maximum time off for stress an employee can take?
Staff signed off work with stress in the UK can take seven days off without a doctor’s note. After this, it is up to you how long to allow the staff member to take time off to fully recuperate.
We have further information on the number of employee sick days if you need further information.
Work related stress
In 2018/19, stress at work in the UK made up 44% of all work-related illness alongside depression and anxiety.
During lockdown and coronavirus, individuals experiencing these three mental-health issues has risen.
Returning to work during this period is going to be a stressful time for many. This puts the issue of work-related stress in the limelight once again.
How to handle an employee off work with work-related stress
An employee who is signed off work with stress has rights. We’ll get into what they are a little later.
The first thing you need to understand is whether their stress is due to external factors or in relation to work.
If the stress is related to external factors, all you can do is provide support. However, if the issue is work related, then you should take a different approach.
You can use the two-step method below:
- Treat the issue like any other sickness absence. By downgrading the problem you risk upsetting the individual and making the situation worse.
- If the employee is stressed due to work, there’s an issue within your business that might grow into something more substantial. If the employee becomes so stressed they feel they can no longer work at the business, they may be able to pursue a claim of constructive dismissal. This means it’s in your interest to pinpoint contributing factors and resolve them.
Invite the employee to a meeting, (or conduct a meeting upon their return to work), and ask them how you can help accommodate them moving forward. It might be a number of factors, or just one, including:
- An excessive workload.
- Poor relationships with colleagues.
- Poor relationships with managers.
- The working environment—a toxic company culture.
Once the meeting is over, you can investigate any issues and begin to resolve them.
During the period of absence, you should maintain contact with the employee, and keep them informed of any updates within the business.
This line of communication is important for establishing trust and for establishing an open return when the employee feels ready.
Failure to check in, or contacting them too regularly, will likely make the issue worse.
Work related stress symptoms
There’s a long list of ways stress can manifest itself, including:
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Low mood
- Excessive intake of caffeine or alcohol
- Low productivity
- Regular absences or lateness
- High sickness rate
- Cynicism and defensiveness
- Weight loss or gain
- Shortness of breath
- Regular or lingering colds
If an employee is experiencing some of these, they may wish to be signed off work with stress and/or anxiety.
Work-related stress leave
Back to the legal side of the matter, how do you manage stress leave in the UK? Treat it with the same amount of severity you would regular sickness absence.
The same rules apply. The employee can self-certify their sickness by providing a work-related stress sick note for seven days.
After that period, they’ll need a note from their doctor to continue their absence. For long periods of absence you may request a formal meeting with the individual to discuss returning to the office.
If the employee refuses to meet, or misses multiple appointments, you can begin to consider a capability dismissal.
This should be a last resort after you’ve taken all other considerations into account.
Work-related stress—employer’s responsibility
Stress accounts for up 44% of all work-related sickness absence alongside anxiety and depression. Remember, you have a duty of care to ensure the wellbeing of your employees.
With this in mind, you should include stress, anxiety, and depression in your health & safety risk assessments.
You could go a step further and produce a risk assessment that specifically targets mental health issues. This isn’t a requirement, but would highlight your commitment to wellbeing in the workplace.
Work-related stress—your employees’ rights
One of the main questions that is asked regarding work related stress rights is, “Does stress count as a protected characteristic?” In certain circumstances, yes.
If the stress is caused by harassment the employee may be able to claim that it’s a symptom of a bigger issue. Particularly if the abuse relates to their gender, age, sexual orientation, race, etc.
Stress generally isn’t considered a disability. However stress can lead to conditions that are disabilities under the Equality Act 2010 , such as anxiety and depression.
Work-related stress—employee pay
As a rule, an employee signed off with stress has entitlement to the same rate of sick pay as someone off work with a physical illness.
The other thing to consider here is that the illness may be caused by the individual’s working situation. As a result, an employee off work with stress may seek compensation for their condition.
It’s possible for employees to claim personal injury compensation for stress at work. Particularly if it causes other health issues.
For employees to pursue a claim, they’ll want to receive a diagnosis from a medical professional. They’re more likely to succeed in their claim if the stress was a result of these factors:
- Bullying and harassment
- Denial of employee rights
- Excessive workload
- Lack of support
To avoid a claim, you should ensure the employee has your full support. Investigate any claims of bullying, harassment, or denial of rights.
Work-related stress—employee FAQs
Finally, we’re going to go through some common questions employees pose in relation to work related stress and provide a response.
“Can work contact me when off sick with stress?” Yes. However, your employer should handle this contact sensitively and not badger or bully you into returning.
“Can I have time off work for stress?” Yes. Absence due to stress should be treated the same as regular sickness absence. Likewise, you should follow regular procedure, including self-certification for the first seven days of absence. Any absence that lasts longer than this requires a medical note from your GP.
“How long can you be signed off work with stress?” There’s no legal definition for when an absence becomes ‘too long’. This decision ultimately rests with your employer. This doesn’t mean you must return to work immediately. If you have a medical note, your employer should provide you with a reasonable amount of time off and remain in contact to ensure a sensible return to work when appropriate.
“How do I go about getting signed off work with stress?” Whatever your regular procedure for sickness absence is—follow it. Your employer should treat mental wellbeing as seriously as physical illness.
Stress in the workplace is a serious issue and accounts for a significant amount of sickness absence in the UK. If your employees are struggling with mental health, or if you have an issue with sickness absence, Croner can help.
We have solutions for managing staff mental health, and for supporting you through major HR issues. To find how our support eases your worry, call one of our experts today on 0145 585 8132
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