What is a Stress Leave From Work?

Published on: 31 May 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Elizabeth Keohan, LCSW-C
woman hunched over computer

A stressful work environment can leave you feeling depressed, tired, and isolated. It can also cause you to lose sleep, overeat, or drink too much. Even worse, stress and anxiety at work can leave your body run down and more susceptible to infection. Stress has been found to contribute to anxiety disorders, depression, cognitive and memory issues, impaired immune function, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal complications, and a host of other mental and physical health conditions. Things outside of work, from family matters to personal finance, can also bring you stress which can make it difficult to show up to work. 

If you’ve tried addressing your stress by taking a mental health day, talking to a trusted friend or therapist, or making changes to your work routine to find a better work-life balance, but find these things just haven’t helped, it might be time to take the next step. 

You may need a stress leave from work. Did you know that the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has an employment law that allows employees to take time away from their job to deal with stress and anxiety? It’s important to note, too, that stress leave differs from sick leave. If you’re experiencing physical or mental health symptoms that are serious enough to prevent you from working, you might be able to take advantage of the program. You won’t necessarily get paid for the time you’re away from your job, as you would with paid sick leave, but your employer has to keep a job open for you. 

Read on to learn more about how you can start the process of taking time off from work to reduce stress and come back to work in a better mental health space. 

Qualifying for Stress Leave

To qualify for stress leave under the FMLA, there are some qualifiers you must meet. For example, eligible employees need to have worked for 12 months and around 1,250 hours for their employer. Another stipulation is that most employers need to have at least 50 employees or they don’t have to offer FMLA. However, regardless of how many there are, all employees of government agencies and schools are covered under the FMLA. 

Don’t lose hope if you don’t qualify for FMLA. There might be other programs through your state family and medical leave laws you can use. 

The FMLA allows for up to 12 weeks of leave during a 12-month period. To get stress leave from work, you’ll need to make an appointment with your healthcare provider to document your stress-related health condition. 

The FMLA defines a serious health condition as impairment, illness, or injury that requires one of the following:

  • Inpatient care
  • Hospice care
  • Residential medical care 
  • Continued treatment 

The act also states that:

  1. You’ll be required to make periodic visits for treatment (at least twice a year)
  2. This will continue over an extended period of time
  3. Your condition might be episodic, but you don’t necessarily need to be fully incapacitated 

Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Under the Family Medical Leave Act, your employer must do the following if you qualify for a stress leave:

  • Keep a job open for you (although it doesn’t necessarily have to be the job you had prior to your mental health leave)
  • Allow you to continue with any company-sponsored healthcare plan
  • Offer you a job on your return in the same location, with the same hours and the same pay

When to Take a Stress Leave

Allowing work-related stress to build up can be harmful to both your mental and your physical health. If you’ve been feeling run down, experiencing burnout, unable to concentrate, physically or mentally exhausted, or unmotivated, you should consider focusing on your own wellbeing for a moment. 

Sometimes, this can mean just taking one day (or a couple of days) to regroup and recharge. A mental health day can often be just what you need to reset and get back to work. There are obvious signs you need a mental health day. Other times, you might need more. 

If you’re finding that personal or work stress stress is having an impact on your ability to function, interfering with how well you can do your job, or affecting your relationships (both in and outside of work), it might be time to seriously consider a stress leave. 

“Working with a therapist and/or a psychiatrist to explore what healthy stress management practices work for you is an important first step. You can start by tracking your stress symptoms (IE: poor sleep), which interventions you used (IE: daily meditation breaks), and how successful the outcomes were (IE: improved your sleep). Share your results with your mental healthcare provider, and ask for feedback and suggestions.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Emotional symptoms of stress

Stress can cause people to feel isolated, angry, and overwhelmed. Workplace stress may also cause you to wake up with anxiety daily, dread getting up in the morning, and some people even lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Other symptoms of emotional stress can be:

  • Restlessness
  • Anxiousness
  • Feeling sad
  • Being teary all the time
  • Finding yourself more angry, annoyed, or irritable than normal
  • Being preoccupied with a sense of fear, but not being able to pinpoint why
  • Having specific worries
  • Feeling unable to concentrate or motivate

Physical symptoms of stress

There are physical symptoms associated with stress to be aware of, too. Some of these might include feeling tired, nervous, or not being able to sleep at night. People under extreme stress may also eat or drink to excess and may begin abusing substances in an attempt to cope. Some additional physical symptoms of stress may include:

  • Insomnia
  • Frequent ailments like headaches
  • Digestive problems
  • Tension pain in your chest
  • Muscle pain
  • Nightmares

How to Request Stress Leave

If you’re wondering how to get stress leave from work, there are set guidelines and a process you need to follow. First, you need to discuss your situation with your employer — this could be your boss or the human resources (HR) department — and let them know that you’d like to take an FMLA leave. 

Employers may require a medical certification from your healthcare provider. They’ll give you the paperwork you need to take to your doctor, and you generally have 15 days to complete and return it to your employer. 

Rest assured, you don’t have to show your employer any medical records, and your employer is not allowed to ask personal questions of your healthcare provider beyond the narrow scope of the certification. If your employer claims otherwise and demands records, getting an employment lawyer will help you out. Remember: Your personal medical information is protected under HIPAA laws.

What if I Am Not Eligible for Stress Leave?

If you don’t qualify for a stress leave based on a chronic condition, or if you work for a company that has fewer than 50 employees, there are other things you can do to help alleviate your job stress. These might include taking:

  • Mental health days: Spending even one day away from a stressful situation can often help reduce anxiety so you can better focus on your job when you return.
  • Unpaid personal leave: If you work for a small company, or if you haven’t been at your job long enough to qualify for stress leave under the FMLA, you still might be able to take unpaid personal leave.
  • Leave of absence: Even if you don’t qualify for an FMLA stress leave, some employers will still grant you a leave of absence. However, they don’t have to keep a job open for you under this type of leave, and as with FMLA, you likely won’t be paid for your time off. 

Prioritizing Your Mental Health

Staying mentally fit is just as important as staying healthy physically. If you’re struggling, it’s important that you know you’re not alone. One in four Americans have been diagnosed with a mental health or stress-related condition. Many more are suffering undiagnosed. Making your mental health a priority not only helps you enjoy life more fully, but it’ll also help keep many physical health problems at bay.

Knowing about the FMLA and how to get stress leave from work is important if you want to keep yourself healthy, both mentally and physically. If you’re feeling anxious or nervous at work, or if you’re experiencing emotional or physical symptoms of stress, make sure to talk with your employer about what type of leave might be available to you.

“Healthy stress management is crucial to keeping our brains and bodies as healthy as we can. What works for you at a stress level of 2/10 will most likely not work as well when your stress level is a 10/10, so making sure you have a variety of healthy stress management practices that work for you is key. A therapist can help you explore what works for you and what doesn’t, so you can focus on strengthening what actually works for you.”

Talkspace therapist Kate Rosenblatt, MA, LPC, LMHC

Taking time to care for yourself can be one of the hardest, but most important, things you do. It’s important, and if you’re struggling, you should definitely consider focusing on self care and making some changes. It doesn’t have to be hard to address your mental health. You can start by doing simple things like taking a walk, journaling for mental health, reading a book, or doing something that you enjoy. 

Sometimes, though, you need more than that, like seeing an online therapist to help you get to the root of the causes of your stress or anxiety. Therapy can teach you how to identify triggers, spot unhealthy thought or behavior patterns you engage in, and then focus on better, healthier, more effective ways to cope. 

Talkspace is an online therapy platform that takes the pressure out of getting mental health help. Our approach to therapy is probably different from anything else you’ve experienced. We make therapy easy, quick, affordable, and accessible. See what we’re doing to help people just like you, every day. 

Sources:

1. Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057-1072. Published 2017 Jul 21. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/. Accessed May 1, 2022.

2. FMLA Frequently Asked Questions. U.S. Department of Labor. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/fmla/faq. Accessed May 1, 2022.

3. Lakhan S, Vieira K. Nutritional therapies for mental disorders. Nutr J. 2008;7(1). doi:10.1186/1475-2891-7-2. https://nutritionj.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1475-2891-7-2. Accessed May 1, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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