Organizational Wellness

Navigating Stress Leave from Work: A Guide for HR Leaders

Apr 22, 2024
Last Updated May 13, 2024

Stress isn’t just a feeling. It can actually cause your body physical pain. 

If a person is dealing with stress for an extended period of time, it could lead to larger health consequences like high blood pressure. Even highly satisfying jobs aren’t completely without stress  — in  fact, ​​96% of workers say they experience stress at their jobs. Nearly a third face high levels during their workday. This can quickly become costly for organizations, as stress drives up healthcare costs

When stress accumulates beyond manageable levels, employees may need to consider taking temporary leave. The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a law that allows workers to take time away from work to deal with stress. This absence serves as a crucial period for recovery. It also presents an opportunity for HR teams to address and mitigate workplace stress effectively. 

Balancing legal obligations and company policies with the need to support employee health requires a nuanced approach.

Explore the best practices of stress leave, as well as a few tips to help you reduce anxiety levels at your company. 


What Exactly Is Stress Leave from Work?

Stress leave is an official medical leave of absence that allows employees to recover from mental exertion. That could come from chronic stress that’s built up over months or someone might also request a hiatus for flaring health conditions, like anxiety or depression. This policy is often enacted when an employee will not be able to adequately reduce their stress by taking a few days off. 

Some signs someone may need stress leave include: 

  • Inability to perform daily duties
  • Changes in behavior that impact performance
  • Difficulty focusing
  • High levels of fatigue

This policy differs from other types of leave your organization might use. For example, many companies have parental leave that often lasts several weeks or months. Another official break is bereavement, where employees cope with a personal loss. Stress leave is typically shorter than these but is often caused by the work environment. 

Identifying the Triggers: Common Causes of Employee Stress

Debilitating stress doesn’t come from nowhere. Instead, it’s likely to be caused by external factors. These are the most common reasons for an extended hiatus from work: 

Workplace Bullying

If an employee doesn’t feel safe at work it can lead to unmanageable stress. Poor treatment — like bullying or microaggressions — creates a toxic environment for your team members — and that can impact how they work and their overall happiness. 


Thirty-six percent of Americans have moderate burnout. That type of strain can increase the risk of overwhelming stress. 

Difficult Relationships

If an employee has a difficult relationship with a manager or supervisor, that can also lead to high levels of stress. It could come from talking about politics in the workplace or asking inappropriate or biased questions. When connections sour, the individual may experience constant pressure to the point of breaking. 

Personal Struggles

 In most cases, you don’t know what is going on in someone’s personal life — some employees may have difficulty managing both work and home obligations.  A serious imbalance can add a lot of strain on someone’s health, making work-life wellness almost non-existent. Getting some distance from work may help them get their responsibilities in order.

Ignoring Employee Wellness

If companies aren’t actively improving employee wellness and monitoring mental health, there could be an increase in stress leave from work. On the flip side, wellness programs can help your workers manage their emotions and physical health. 

Identifying Employees Struggling with Stress

These are some signals to watch out for that you may have a teammate feeling overburdened.

Physical and Emotional Symptoms

Fatigue or irritability could both be signs of overwhelming stress. Those symptoms might manifest as antisocial behavior. For example, an employee might withdraw from team meetings. 

Changes in Work Habits

 If you notice major shifts in behavior, it could be a sign someone isn’t doing well. If someone is always on time and they start coming in late, that could be alarming. Irregularities could indicate a problem with high stress. 

Feedback from Colleagues

Coworkers can notice stress before many other people. Consider creating a way for individuals to let you know if they’re worried about someone. Hearing from colleagues can be a big sign someone needs support.

How Stress Leave Works

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), eligible employees are granted the right to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specific family and medical reasons. That includes breaks due to stress. 

This type of leave does not mandate pay, but it does protect the worker’s job position during their absence. The law does not dictate the duration of stress leave. That empowers your team to determine appropriate leave lengths  based on individual circumstances.

Here are some steps you can take to navigate this effectively:

  1. Assess FMLA Eligibility: Familiarize yourself with FMLA requirements to ensure compliance. These conditions include: 
    1. having more than 50 employees in a 75-mile radius and the employee 
    2. having worked for a year and provided 1,250 hours of service. 
  2. Communicate Clearly with Employees: Ensure team members are aware of their rights and responsibilities under the FMLA, including the process for requesting stress leave. Consider holding training sessions on this or including it in your employee handbook. 
  3. Develop Internal Guidelines: Create and implement internal policies that outline how your organization handles stress leave. That includes outlining any pay policies and how the duration of leave is determined, since these are specific to your organization. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) sets the foundation for stress leave, outlining eligibility criteria without mandating paid leave. Typically the online paperwork your team needs is an official note from a medical professional. This documentation from healthcare providers serves as the basis for granting leave and helps you determine the length of leave. 

Determining a Period of Leave

Since the length of stress leave is your call, how do you decide what’s fair? Here are two tips: 

  • Listen to healthcare recommendations. Often, the doctor who writes documentation for you will suggest a duration. You could choose to follow that exactly. 
  • Discuss with the employee. If you don’t have any advice, consider deciding alongside your teammate. Suggest a length and see if that would work. Once you decide on a duration, consider writing up an official document. 

Determining the length of stress leave involves a careful balance between supporting the employee’s health needs and managing operational requirements. Since there are no legal mandates specifying the length, HR professionals have the discretion to set these parameters. To make informed decisions:

  1. Consult Healthcare Recommendations: A doctor’s note will often include specific recommendations regarding the employee’s condition and needed recovery time. These insights can serve as a valuable guide in determining the leave duration. Be prepared to adapt these recommendations to suit both the individual’s health needs and the organization's capacity.
  2. Collaborate with the Employee: Consider sitting down with the individual and discuss the recommended leave duration. This collaborative approach ensures that the plan is mutually agreeable and considers the employee's recovery and workplace commitments. It also fosters a supportive environment by showing the worker that their wellbeing is a priority.
  3. Formalize the Agreement: Once a duration is agreed upon, consider formalizing this arrangement through an official document. This should outline the start and end dates and any conditions for returning to work.

By taking these steps, HR leaders can ensure a compliant and supportive process that ultimately contributes to a positive and healthy workplace culture.

Best Practices for Handling Stress Leave Requests

If you have someone interested in stress leave, here are some suggestions for making that process smooth: 

Keep it Confidential 

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits your team from asking for any medical information. Try to avoid asking personal questions that could make someone uncomfortable. Consider extending that policy of privacy by not sharing any details with other employees. 

Check State Laws

Your state may have additional guidelines on leave periods to follow. Consider checking on any medical and family leave restrictions. For example, Utah limits medical leave to 12 weeks

Create a Company Policy

Crafting an official policy lets you assess any and all leave requests fairly. This can outline the requirements and all the details on pay during that period. You may want to explain how employees can use other types of leave (like sick days) for stress leave. 

Consider a Return-to-Work plan

Consider creating a return-to-work plan to help them transition back to their job. The document could explain how their first day back will go. 

Implementing Work Accommodations for Anxiety and Stress

Continued stress can aggravate a mental health condition or even count as a disability. If it does qualify, you could be required to offer accommodations. These shouldn’t cause your business undue hardship. Typically, this arrangement might let a worker take regular breaks or leave early once a week. 

Oftentimes, the individual’s doctor will recommend adjustments. Consider adopting the suggestions. If you don’t have a doctor’s input, discuss what would be reasonable for the teammate and their manager. You might have them join you in a meeting where you outline what’s fair for both parties. 

Strategies to Reduce Workplace Stress

ideas-reduce-workplace-stress.pngUltimately, stress leave is only a necessity because of environmental faults. If you’re actively supporting your employees’ wellbeing, you can often reduce the need for leave. Here are some strategies to help lower strain: 

Offer Mental Wellbeing Resources

Protecting your team members’ mental wellness is valuable. One way to do so is to offer health insurance that covers therapy. It could also include having counselors hold workshops on relaxation techniques. Your company might offer mental health days. A variety of options can allow everyone to choose what works best for them. 

Recognize and Reward Employees

Recognition is a powerful tool to counter feelings of being undervalued. Feeling forgotten can contribute to workplace stress. Consider programs you can put into place that will regularly highlight good work. For example, you might award someone for being the most improved teammate. 

Foster Positive Team Relationships

Employees with good relationships experience less stress. To help foster connections, consider boosting the amount of team building done. 

Encourage Vacation Use 

Over 765 million vacation days go unused in America each year. Unfortunately, this has repercussions. To counter the burden on your people, encourage them to use their days off. The people who do take vacations have lower stress levels

Foster Workforce Wellness

Employees with access to wellness programs experience lower anxiety levels. Crafting initiatives can help improve the work environment and reduce the need for a stress hiatus. 

Fostering a Healthy Workplace Culture with Employee Wellness

One of the most powerful steps you can take to help reduce employee stress is to focus on wellness. The money you invest in employee wellbeing can pay off by boosting employee satisfaction — and by saving money. In fact, 78% of HR leaders report their programs reduced the cost of healthcare benefits, according to a 2023 Wellhub report. On top of that, 85% of HR leaders reported decreased utilization of sick days. 

Wellhub provides employees with holistic wellness support so they can move, eat, sleep, and feel well. Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to get started! 

Company healthcare costs drop by up to 35% with Wellhub! (* Based on proprietary research comparing healthcare costs of active Wellhub users to non-users.) Talk to a Wellbeing Specialist to see how we can help reduce your healthcare spending!



Wellhub Editorial Team

The Wellhub Editorial Team empowers HR leaders to support worker wellbeing. Our original research, trend analyses, and helpful how-tos provide the tools they need to improve workforce wellness in today's fast-shifting professional landscape.


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