Stress leave is when a person takes extended time off work to recover from the physical and emotional toll of stress. Reasons for taking it vary from work-related concerns such as high workloads to life issues such as family problems.

Stress leave allows people to securely take time off work while recovering from stress. Evidence suggests that taking stress leave can be fairly effective.

However, to qualify for stress leave in the United States, a person must meet certain conditions defined in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

This article explores why people take stress leave, the signs of stress, and the benefits of stress leave. It will also discuss what the law says about stress leave, how to take stress leave, and getting the most out of it.

A person relaxing in a deck chair outdoors.Share on Pinterest
Boris Jovanovic/Getty Images

There are many reasons why people take stress leave from work.

According to an American Psychological Association (APA) report, long hours, low salaries, and a lack of opportunity for growth and development are key causes of stress at work.

A 2016 study asked 51 people from various workplaces about what made them seek stress leave. The study authors report the following causes of stress leave:

  • Issues with working conditions: These include high workloads, understaffing, lack of structure in working hours, and poor or noisy physical environment.
  • Job-related issues: These include having high responsibility or demands, working with clients, and dealing with unpredictable or unexpected challenges. They also include commuting, working nights, and shift work.
  • Management-related issues: For some people, problems with workplace management lead to the need for stress leave. These include a lack of transparency, poor communication, unfair treatment, and a lack of support or appreciation. Some people also cited pressure, unrealistic demands, and conflicting roles as causes of stress leave.
  • Life-related issues: These include problems with work-life balance, sickness, unexpected life events, and personal or family problems.
  • Financial issues: Factors such as job insecurity, lack of benefits, and low pay can sometimes cause people to take stress leave. However, people cited such financial causes less often than other factors.

Learn more about dealing with anxiety at work here.

There are many different signs of stress, which can be physical and emotional.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIH) lists some of them as follows:

Learn more about the symptoms of burnout here.

The laws surrounding stress leave vary by country. In the U.S., the law permits some people to take stress leave to deal with serious health conditions, which may include stress, anxiety, and depression, that prevent them from properly doing their job.

According to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), an individual may take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave over 12 months. During this period, a person’s employer is duty-bound to provide them with identical or similar work upon their return.

However, not every person is eligible for this leave. The FMLA states that people must meet the following conditions to receive sick leave:

  • they have worked for their employer for a minimum of 12 months
  • they have at least 1,250 hours of work during the 12 months prior to the leave
  • they must work for a business whose location has at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius
  • they must work for a covered employer

The list of covered employers is varied. Private employers count, provided that they have had a minimum of 50 employees working during 20 workweeks within a maximum of 2 calendar years.

At the local, state, or federal levels, public agencies also count. Finally, public and private elementary and secondary schools are also eligible employers.

The following steps can help a person take stress leave from work.

Step 1: Know your rights

People should begin by familiarizing themselves with the FMLA act. This will inform them if they are legally entitled to take stress leave from their work, depending on their organization.

It is also advisable for people to determine their company’s policies around sick and stress leave.

However, even if a person’s employer has no set policy or does not come under the FMLA, it is still important to take the following measures to address the causes and work out how to manage their stress.

Step 2: Talk with a healthcare professional

A person should then talk with a healthcare professional.

A person can approach their healthcare professional with examples of the physical and emotional toll of their stress, whether from work, personal, financial issues, or a combination.

The healthcare professional can provide support and medical guidance on managing stress. They can also confirm with an employer that a person is unable to work due to stress.

Step 3: Talking with your employer

The next step is for a person to talk with their employer, providing them with proof of ill health.

This might involve the person’s direct manager and the HR department. This may also be a good opportunity to discuss any workplace issues contributing to their stress.

To get the most out of stress leave, a person can practice stress-management techniques. A 2021 review discusses several of these, which include:

Getting adequate rest and sleep is also important. It is also crucial to avoid working from home or thinking too much about work while on stress leave. This may be challenging at first, so distractions might prove useful.

When a person’s stress leave ends, they can ask their direct manager to work with them to create a return to work plan. This may include starting with a reduced workload and gradually building up their responsibilities with regular check-ins.

Easing back into the workplace may be difficult at first. However, people might make this transition smoother by continuing their stress-management techniques.

Aside from mindfulness and following a healthy lifestyle, the 2016 study mentioned above notes that some different factors can reduce stress at work. These include:

  • receiving support from colleagues, friends, or family
  • having a positive mental attitude
  • pursuing interests or hobbies
  • taking time off work during holidays and weekends
  • refraining from taking work home

Learn more about dealing with work and anxiety here.

Evidence suggests that breaks from work can help people deal with stress.

However, it is worth emphasizing that the FMLA only covers unpaid leave. This means that while a person’s job is secure, they are not guaranteed to receive any pay during this time.

Some people are unable to take stress leave because doing so would be financially unviable.

Research has shown that psychological distress is highest among workers whose employers do not provide paid sick leave.

There are many different reasons people take stress leave from work, including high workloads, management issues, family problems, and finances.

The FMLA act allows some people in the U.S. to take up to 12 weeks’ sick leave per year. However, many people are ineligible for this leave, and even eligible workers may be unable to take extended periods of unpaid leave.

It is important for people who are experiencing stress to speak with a healthcare professional and their employer regardless. Taking these measures will help them get medical guidance for dealing with stress and address the causes of stress at their workplace.