Statistics from the HSE (Health & Safety Executive) show that stress is the cause of as much as 40% of all work-related sickness. It's never been classified as an illness itself, but prolonged periods of stress can cause a wide range of illnesses, both mental and physiological. These include depression, anxiety, heart disease and eczema.

Simply put - it's an issue that needs addressing.

Anyone can be impacted by stress, and it doesn't just harm the individual who's experiencing it. When stress causes long-term illness, there can be substantial moral and financial consequences for their company, and even increased staff turnover.

Here's what companies and workers need to know about their rights around stress leave.

The responsibilities of the employer

Where long-term illness is an issue, it's important that the topic is approached with sensitivity and compassion. Many long-term absences will come as a consequence of a serious condition that involves surgery and recovery time, while others might be related to mental health issues. Both scenarios can be caused by work-related stress, and employers must show empathy towards every case – it is also important to have a good understanding of stress leave laws.

When an employee is unable to work for a period of fewer than 7 days, they can 'self-certify' the sickness. Employers can then choose to reintroduce them to work through a return to work interview, though this isn't mandatory.

Any illness that lasts longer than 7 consecutive days is different. Companies are entitled to ask for a Statement of Fitness for Work, issued by the worker's GP. The number of days an illness lasts includes weekdays and weekends, regardless of which days they actually work.

The GP who provides the document will either state that the individual isn't well enough to work for a specified time, or recommend advisory measures that will enable them to continue working. If the company isn't able to accommodate these recommendations, they must consider the employee unfit to work.

These responsibilities are best covered in your absence policy. We've got a free absence policy template here you can download.

Do I get paid if I'm off with stress?

Being off with stress is just the same as any other sickness based reason for absence. Responsible employers will cover this in their company handbook explaining how much and for how long team mates will be paid while off sick, so yes, you should get paid while off with stress, but you'll need to check your company handbook for more clarity.

You also have Statutory Sick Pay in the mix which covers you if you are too ill to work.

An employee qualifies for SSP if they meet the following criteria:

  • They are classified as an employee
  • Their illness has lasted for a minimum of 4 days in a row (including those they don't usually work on)
  • They earn in excess of £113 per week
  • They notify their employer of their sickness within 7 days

Companies are legally required to pay SSP at a rate of £89.35 per week for a maximum of 28 weeks if an employee meets the qualifying criteria. After that 28-week period, absence due to sickness becomes unpaid.

Staying in touch

Companies should strive to maintain regular contact with any employee on sickness-related leave. Keeping them informed of their position, including changes in their duties, their sick pay, or updates relating to their work, is really important.

A sickness absence meeting should be aimed at:

  • Understanding the reasons for absence
  • Determining the potential length of the absence
  • Discussing the probability of future absences
  • Considering measures which could be implemented to improve attendance/health
  • Arranging future meetings
  • Discussing job security - it may be possible to initiate a dismissal process when an employee is on long term sick leave, but it must be fair and reasonable

Return to work interviews can sometimes be a good way to reintroduce an employee into their duties, but not always. If they've not worked for a long time, these interviews are often a good way to get them up to speed and get a good understanding of their illness. It could help understand what caused the stress and suggest measures to reduce future triggers.

It could also give valuable insight into a stressful company culture that needs changing.

Lowering workplace stress

Every employee will have a unique root cause of their workplace stress. Nevertheless, there are some relatively simple things companies can do to help employees lower their stress levels, such as:

  • Offering flexible working hours
  • Doing regular performance reviews, with constructive feedback
  • Keeping them informed of upcoming duty/organisational changes
  • Ensure workloads are manageable
  • Encourage employees to take their breaks and holidays

No-one benefits when employees' stress levels are going through the roof. If individuals in your organisation are suffering, try to nip it in the bud before the stress leads to bigger health concerns. And when an employee does become ill due to work-related stress, be sure you respond in accordance with the rules and requirements to help them recover and, hopefully, return in a sustainable way.

If you're aiming to create a more compassionate, sane culture around absence in your business, have a look at our guide on how to create an effective sickness absence policy.