We all get stressed at work now and then by a busy day, a looming deadline, or an annoying boss. It’s normally harmless – you get home, glug a glass of wine, inhale a bar of chocolate,  and forget about it by the time your head hits the pillow. But when it’s not harmless, it’s a serious problem.

Over 600,000 people suffered from work-related stress or mental health issues in 2019, and more than 12 million working days were lost as a result. That’s a lot of lost time and, more importantly, a lot of stressed people.

Knowing how to handle employees who are off with work-related stress means you can make their lives easier when they’re going through a tough time, and might help them back to work sooner, too. It’s a win-win situation.

Be empathetic

The first step to handling someone off with work-related stress is to practice empathy. They’re already having a tough time and you can make things worse by putting your own needs above theirs. It’s better for both of you if you can take a step back and see the bigger picture – after all, they didn’t choose to be stressed.


Just like when you’re managing any other type of absence, staying in touch with someone off on stress leave can be a good thing. Do it in the right way (with a simple regular check-in) and you’ll make them feel valued and reduce any guilt about being off. You should ask if there’s anything you can do to help their recovery.

Don’t push them

The most important thing to avoid when you’re speaking to someone off with stress is making their situation worse by talking too much about their work or pushing them to come back. You’re only going to extend their absence by pressuring them.

Make an action plan

When someone tells you they've recovered and will be returning to work soon, make a plan with them about what’s going to happen. Discuss changes they might want to their working conditions, what should be covered in the return to work interview, and put a plan in place so the same situation will be avoided in the future.

Returning to work after time off for stress

When someone comes back to work after time off for stress, you can make what’s known as reasonable adjustments to make their return easier for them. This can take the form of reduced responsibilities, a staggered return, or support from a colleague. Anything that makes it less likely they’ll suffer again as soon as they pick up where they left off is a good thing, and the details of what’ll help can be figured out with the individual.

You should also conduct a return to work interview. You’d carry one of these out for someone returning from any illness, but there are a few changes you can make so it’s more suitable for the specific circumstances.

Return to work interview after stress

A return to work interview after stress leave is a great opportunity for you to learn how to make improvements in the workplace. Following these tips can make sure you get the most out of it, while also helping the person returning to work feel comfortable:

  • Go in with a plan, knowing how you can reach the best outcome for yourself and the person you’re interviewing
  • Welcome them back to work, ask how they’re feeling, and make sure they know the meeting isn’t too formal
  • Ask open-ended questions that allow them to expand on their feelings, giving you an accurate representation of how they’re doing
  • Find out what their core stressor was, and what they think can be done to avoid it happening again
  • Reach an agreement on the adjustments you can make to their role and whether they’ll make enough of a difference
  • Update them on what’s been happened in the business while they’ve been off to make sure they know where everything is up to
  • Follow up the return to work interview with regular informal chats that give them the opportunity to update you on their progress and raise any concerns

What if someone goes off sick with stress again?

If someone returns from stress leave but can’t settle back into their job (even after adjustments have been made) without getting ill again, you only have two options.

The first is to go through the same process of allowing them to take time off again, waiting for their recovery, and seeing how they respond to returning to work a second time.

The second is to organise a more formal review of their ability to perform in their role, with the aim of solving the problem, maybe finding a new position in the company that might better suit them, or, as a last resort, beginning the process of termination.

At this point, you should treat things more formally to make sure your approach is fair and reasonable. Remember, you can’t let employees go on unfair or discriminatory grounds, so get the advice of an expert to confirm you’re doing things properly.

There aren’t any laws that deal specifically with employee rights  when they get stressed at work, but you have duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act to look after the general welfare of your staff.

While stress itself isn’t seen as a medical condition, it is linked with anxiety, depression, and other illnesses. That means it should be treated as being harmful to wellbeing and will qualify people for statutory sick pay if it’s making them too sick to work.

You should cover your policy on work-related stress pay in your employee handbook to make things clear, because the last thing someone dealing with stress needs is uncertainty about whether they’re going to get paid.

Outside of getting statutory sick pay, people also have the right to make a legal claim against you if they have either:

  1. Suffered a diagnosed psychiatric illness that you were aware was worsening and did nothing to stop
  2. Resigned because they felt you were in serious breach of your contractual obligation to provide a safe working environment
  3. Been unfairly dismissed because of the effects their illness had on their performance

These claims aren’t easy to make and require proof you were negligent, but they do happen.