Updated: Jun 27, 2021
Article written by Edie-Louise Diemar
Published in HRM Magazine, 24 May 2021
It’s hard to find out an employee needs to take stress leave. How should you respond to their request without creating more stress for them?
According to a report by ADP, an HR and payroll software company, 60 per cent of employees in the Asia Pacific region report feeling stressed at least once a week on average. Australians are even more stressed, with 64 per cent reporting feeling stressed at least once a week. This isn’t too surprising when you consider what we’ve all just lived through.
That same report revealed that Australians are the least likely to discuss their mental health, with more than one third saying they wouldn’t talk about it at work.
With many employees still carrying the stress of 2020, paired with the huge amount of unpaid overtime they’re doing, it’s worth understanding exactly how to respond to a stress leave request. HRM asked organisational psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson to share her best tips.
STEP 1: Respond to their stress leave request
Stress leave is not a legally mandated type of leave. It is, however, a legitimate reason for an employee to use personal leave under the National Employment Standards. If an employee has run out of sick/personal leave they can use to use annual or long-service leave instead.
If an employee takes time off to manage their stress under one of the three types of leave mentioned above, they don’t have to tell you their reason for doing so. However, an employer may be within their right to ask for a medical certificate if the leave was taken as sick/personal leave, particularly if they request more than one day off.
When an employee is upfront and says they need to take leave because of stress, Ferguson says you should thank them for being honest and avoid making assumptions about the causes of the stress. Instead, be curious about their experience and open to how you could help.
“Appreciate that they have been upfront and ask, ‘What’s happened?’ Whatever they tell you, stay present and listen [to their response]. [Managing] stress is about recovering from your work day. And if you’re not recovering from your work day, every day, then you starting to become emotionally exhausted.
“If the stress is clearly related to work, then the workplace should probably be compensating the employee. This may not necessarily be a separate ‘paid stress leave’. Perhaps it looks more like time off in lieu.”
How should you approach telling others in the team about why someone has taken time off out of the blue?
Ferguson says you need to take your lead from the employee. If they’re comfortable for others to know, you can use this as a great opportunity to destigmatize workplace conversations around mental health. However, if they’d rather you offer a vague reason for their sudden departure, such as ‘family matters’, you need to respect that.
Also, it’s best not to contact the employee while they are on stress leave as this could aggravate the situation. Instead, you could establish a connection with a friend or family member of the employee who can contact you on the employee’s behalf.
STEP 2: Assess the situation
HR’s first reaction to a stress leave request should be concern, says Ferguson.
“Clearly there is a problem of some sort, so it really is on the employer to make sure the employee feels safe to share what that problem is,” she says.
“If you take an approach of concern and be very open and receptive to what they have to say, they will be more likely to speak up and also want to come back to work later.”
If the request is completely unexpected, Ferguson suggests you attempt to dig a little deeper into the root cause, as respectfully as possible.
“Often an employee will request leave because they are either exhausted, burned out or they might be disengaged and planning to leave. Obviously the reason is going to change the kind of support you need to provide them.”
Time away from the workplace may make the employee realise their stress isn’t work related, perhaps there are some parts of their personal life that are causing them grief. However, even if this is the case, it’s worth conducting your own investigation.
Ineffective or unfair management
Poor workplace culture
Bullying and harassment
Organisational structural issues
The management level is a good place to begin your investigation, Ferguson says.
“I would certainly recommend speaking with the employee’s manager and seeing if they’re on the same page. If the employee has come to you and said, ‘I’m overwhelmed and I have too much on my plate,” and their manager says, ‘Oh no, they’re fine’ then clearly there is an issue.
“It then becomes a question of is the manager not hearing their employee’s concerns or does the employee not feel comfortable speaking up?”
It may be that the manager needs some additional training or psychological education to better understand the role they play in creating a psychologically safe work environment, she adds. This training, or ‘psychoeducation’ as she puts it, can help leaders develop tools to become more aware of how employees self-regulate and build resilience.
“Self-regulation is really important at the moment as we deal with so many more external pressures. It’s about knowing ‘This is what I need to do to make sure my psychological health is at its best.’”
How someone self regulates will be different from person to person. For example, some people self-regulate by exercising or making sure they get enough sleep, Ferguson says. HRM recently wrote about the seven different types of rest that we should all be engaging with, so you could also help an employee to build a plan around any areas that might be in deficit.
STEP 3: Act to prevent further issues
As a first prevention step, Ferguson suggests normalising taking time off immediately to recoup from sporadic periods of overtime (which, of course, are inevitable from time to time). If someone stayed late on a work call, for example, make sure you acknowledge that the very next day by suggesting they come in later or head off early for the day. If they don’t take the time off there and then, they most likely never will.
When the employee returns from stress leave, Ferguson suggests meeting up with them and offering them the opportunity to bring a support person to make them more comfortable. In this meeting, as a group you could set the employee up with something like a personal situation plan to help them manage their mental health moving forward. This could include information such as:
Their stress triggers. For example, school holidays might be a hard time for them to focus on work. Or short turnaround periods might cause them to spiral. Knowing this information upfront can help you to plan ahead.
The signs that indicate that they might be overwhelmed/on the verge of breaking down
People to contact in case of emergency or when they’re on stress leave
The appropriate steps to take if they need to request stress leave in the future (i.e. who do they tell? How much notice do they need to give? Who can they hand their work over to and what should that process look like?)
How they’d like the information to be communicated to their teams
The personal situation plan might also identify personal stressors, if they feel comfortable disclosing them, says Ferguson.
“Let’s say they have a child living with a disability who needs extra care. Maybe that’s worth noting so when they say, ‘I’m struggling to finish this project and care for my child’ you have a procedure in place to deal with that.”
It’s also worth keeping in mind which stakeholders you share the information about an employee’s stress leave request with. For example, if that employee is up for a promotion into a new team, but the manager of that team knows they took stress leave a few months ago, this could skew their decision. They might think, ‘So and so won’t be able to cope with the pressure’ or ‘They’re not cut out for this type of work’ when in reality, we’re all stressed at times and just because we struggled at one point, that won’t mean we always will. So try and share this information only with those who need it most and remind leaders that employee stress levels will ebb and flow.
Remote work has hidden a lot of the usual signs of burnout and stress from employers, so leaders need to make sure they’re creating an environment where employees can speak up about what is causing them stress.
“You cannot fully protect an employee, they’re always going to have outside stressors that impact work, but you can make them feel comfortable about telling you when they need extra support.”