With a range of symptoms ranging from headaches, insomnia, muscular pains, digestive problems, anxiety, irritability, fatigue, and more, stress can make it difficult for many employees to carry out their regular tasks and duties. While work-related stress is extremely common in the UK, its prevalence hides the sinister fact of how harmful it is. In fact, researchers have found a link between stress and heart disease.
This is all to say that stress isn't just a normal part of work. Long-term stress can contribute to a range of emotional and physical symptoms in the same way as other forms of sickness. And as one of the biggest causes of health problems in the workplace, employers and HR professionals need to know how to handle stress and stress leave effectively.
So, as HR professionals, how can you handle employee stress and ensure compliance with employment laws while minimising disruption to the business? Here's everything you need to know about stress leave.
What is stress leave?
Stress leave refers to time employees take off work in order to manage and recover from high levels of stress. Employees may take this leave when they are experiencing significant work-related stress because of the responsibilities and demands of their job. Or, workers may take leave because of stress outside of work (for example personal or family issues) which is impacting their ability to do their job.
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What's the law around stress leave?
Under UK law, employers are responsible for the safety of employees when they are at work. This includes protecting employees from stress.
Employees have the right to take time off work if they are suffering from work-related stress, just as they would if they were suffering for a different physical or emotional illness.
When are fit notes required for stress leave?
Just like sick leave for other reasons, employees do not need a note from a medical professional if they are off work for less than seven consecutive days. In this case, they will only need to follow your organisation's regular sickness absence procedure. This might include writing an email or submitting a form to self-certify that they were unwell.
However, if an employee is off work for seven consecutive days (which includes weekends or bank holidays), they will need to get a fit note from a GP.
The note from a medical professional should also suggest how employers can support the employee's return to work. For example, they might suggest changes to the employee's workload, more flexible working arrangements, or a phased return to work.
How long can employees take for stress leave?
The amount of sick leave an employee can take for stress varies depending on their job and employer's sickness policies.
How much are employees paid during stress leave?
Employees can take stress leave and receive Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 28 weeks, as long as they meet certain conditions. They can be paid £109.40 per week during this time.
To qualify for this sick pay, employees must:
- Be classed as an employee, not a self-employed person.
- Have done some work for the employer.
- Earn an average of £123 per week or more.
- Have been ill for four consecutive days or more.
The SSP is paid from the fourth day they are off sick that they usually would have worked.
Statutory sick payments are paid the same way as an employee's regular wages and tax and national insurance are deducted.
Can you contact employees during sick leave?
While there's no rule about how much contact there should be between HR and an employee during their stress leave, this should be agreed on a case-by-case basis. It's important for HR to stay up-to-date with the employee and when they will return to work, however, if the worker is struggling with work-related stress, too much communication while they are on leave can be stressful in itself.
Therefore, it's important to discuss with the employee how much contact is acceptable to avoid overwhelming them. HR needs to be considerate in all communications to ensure the employee does not feel pressured to return to work before they are fit to do so.
While employees are away on stress leave, it's still necessary to update them if the following happen:
- There are redundancies that might affect the employee.
- There are reorganisations that could affect the employee's job.
- There's an opportunity to apply for promotion.
Can employees taking long-term sick leave be dismissed?
Even with a fit note from a GP, it's still possible for an employer to issue a warning or dismissal to employees who are on long-term sick leave. This must, however, follow a fair process including an investigation of the reasons behind the absence. If the investigation finds that the employee is genuinely suffering from work-related stress that can be considered a disability, the employer cannot discipline or dismiss the employee because this would be considered discrimination.
What legal actions can employees take?
If their stress is caused by a problem at work that they feel the employer will not resolve, if their sick leave request is denied, or if they feel unfairly treated because of their stress-related absence, employees may take the following legal actions.
Employees may lodge a formal grievance because of:
- The cause of the stress at work (eg. allegation of discrimination or unsafe working conditions).
- An employer's refusal to allow them to take stress leave which the employee feels to be unreasonable.
- An employee allegedly being treated differently because of their stress-related absence.
Constructive dismissal claim
An employee may make a constructive dismissal claim if they feel that the employer has unreasonably refused to allow sick leave or has treated them unfairly because of their stress-related absence. The employee may also make this claim if they feel that the employer has failed to resolve the root cause of their work-related stress.
An employer and employee may mutually agree to end the employment contract, usually with financial benefits for the employee in exchange for them not making future tribunal claims.
What are HR's next steps?
HR also needs to be taking proactive steps to reduce stress levels in the workplace. Employee stress can be caused or exacerbated by a variety of factors at work, including:
- Feeling unable to manage their workload and deadlines.
- Not receiving enough support from line managers and colleagues in their roles.
- Being unsure about their responsibilities or not receiving enough information.
- Bullying or harassment in the workplace.
- Lack of job security or career progression opportunities.
- Being discriminated against.
- Feeling unable to cope with long hours.
- Lack of control over how the employee works.
- Organisational change.
Employers and therefore HR have an obligation to take steps to minimise stress in the workplace. This might include reviewing the workload and duties of a job role, offering additional support, resources, and training, and taking steps to eliminate any bullying or harassment. For individual employees who are suffering with stress or poor mental health or who are returning from stress leave, it might be useful to make adjustments to their duties to help them cope. When whole teams or departments are suffering from stress, closer investigation is necessary to identify and address the root causes of the issue.
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Managing employee stress and absence using HR software
If your employees are stressed at work, they're unhappy, unhealthy, and likely unproductive as well. Human resources teams have a responsibility to proactively manage levels of stress in the workplace for the sake of both the individuals suffering and the organisation as a whole. HR software with employee relations, analytics, and absence management tools is an essential part of your HR toolkit for this reason.
XCD software's powerful reporting and analytics features provide real-time visibility into the stress levels of your workforce, tracking and identifying trends in key metrics such as absence, turnover, engagement, and more. With custom reports and AI-powered predictive analytics, you can keep your finger on the workforce's pulse and identify worrying trends toward stress or burnout before they even happen.
The time and absence management features also help human resources professionals track work patterns and identify concerning levels of absence that could indicate stress-related sickness. With configurable timesheets and work cycles, these software capabilities can support a variety of work patterns for employees returning from sick leave or who need flexibility and amendments to their work schedules.
Finally, employee relationship management software can help improve the relationship between you and your people. With easy-to-use self-service and intuitive company dashboards, your team can create belonging instantly and keep all important stress and mental health related resources in one accessible platform.
Are you interested in finding out more about how HR software can help with the management of stress and sick leave in your organisation? Get in touch with our expert team or book a demo to see for yourself.