How to Get a Stress Leave From Work
A Stress Leave From Work Can Be a Temporary Rescue
Feel like you're sinking fast? If you're contemplating a "stress leave" from work, then chances are high that the psychological demands of your life are fast exceeding your ability to cope. Set aside any shame—it's unproductive—and instead, focus on taking care of yourself.
Americans typically spend more time on the job than they do at home, yet too often they find themselves struggling with issues like
- excessive workloads, impossible deadlines, and long work hours
- bullying, discrimination, and harassment
- lack of control over tasks, unclear expectations, and insufficient resources
- conflict with co-workers and micromanaging bosses and
- poor work-life balance.
Unfortunately, a majority of American workers experience chronic levels of stress, and it's highest among women and workers with children under 18.1 Exposure to such chronic stress is a health hazard which can aggravate chronic physical ailments and contribute to anxiety disorders, depression, PTSD, and other mental illnesses.
If you're suffering mental health challenges you're not alone. More than one in five Americans experience a mental illness during any given year,2 and almost half of Americans will battle a mental illness at some point during their lifetimes.3 Take care of your psychological needs with a temporary reprieve from a stressful job, if you need one. Here are the nuts and bolts of what you need to know about taking a stress-based leave of absence.
Here's Where to Start with a "Stress Leave"
If you're exploring the possibility of taking a stress-based leave of absence, then here are the general steps to follow:
- Make an appointment with your healthcare provider. Regardless of what happens later, you're stressed out and need professional help in addressing your symptoms now. Don't wait until you're facing an urgent situation.
- Not every employee is eligible for a medical leave of absence, so check to see if you qualify before your appointment with your healthcare provider. Review the company's family and medical leave policy as well as any state and local leave laws. Print the forms for your healthcare provider to complete and sign.
- Before your appointment, also review your short-term disability plan, if you are covered by one. Not everyone is. (Short-term disability insurance allows for your stress-related time off to be at least partially paid.) Review the policy, and print the forms for your healthcare provider to complete and sign.
Important information is provided below on each of these steps.
Step 1: Make an Appointment with Your Healthcare Provider
Technically, there is no such thing as a "stress leave." You'll actually be applying for a medical leave of absence from your job, and the medical condition is psychological in nature. To request a leave, you'll need a diagnosis from a healthcare provider, plus the medical leave of absence forms for your healthcare provider to fill out and sign. (You'll be under their medical care for the duration of your leave.)
It also helps if you read the relevant leave company policies in advance to reduce the chances of surprises. Most companies have the required forms and corresponding policies available on their company intranet. You can also ask your HR representative. You don't need to verbally volunteer to HR that it's a "stress leave" you're seeking, just a medical leave.
Arrange to see a clinical psychologist, social worker, counselor, psychiatrist, or family doctor for your symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other mental illness. The diagnosis is up to them. Your role is to describe your symptoms. Don't hold back in honestly and forcefully detailing the following information to your health care provider:
- your stressors and how your work environment affects your mental and physical health (including migraines, tension headaches, worsening of any autoimmune conditions, etc.)
- what your emotional and physical symptoms are, including your drug/alcohol abuse, risky behavior, and thoughts of self-harm
- symptom severity and how long you've felt this way
- how your stress gets in the way of your performing your work or full functioning (e.g., focus, safety, productivity, reporting to work) and
- what makes your symptoms worse or better, including coping efforts, medications, or therapies you've tried.
The person you need to persuasively convince of your need for time off is your healthcare provider because they will need to complete and sign off on your leave request. Ask them directly if they will support you taking a leave of absence from work. You can suggest an initial leave duration period or see what length of leave they recommend. (As an HR professional, I've seen that healthcare providers often approved at least a month for psychological illnesses.) Make sure you have the forms from your HR department with you.
Before submitting the completed documents to the company, make a copy for yourself. Although you are providing permission for the company to communicate with your healthcare provider about your condition, remember two things:
- healthcare providers are usually brief and exceptionally careful about sharing patients' HIPPA-protected private medical information
- your management won't see your medical information because medical records are kept separate from personnel records at work and the information is handled with utmost confidentiality.
Don't be concerned about taking the needed time off. You do not have to share the reason for your leave with your management, co-workers, or anyone else who has no legitimate business need to know.
Effects of Stress on Your Body, Mood & Behavior
Drug and/or alcohol misuse
Muscle tension or pain
Lack of motivation and focus
Higher heart rate and higher blood pressure
Sadness or depression
Increased risk for heart disease and stroke
Irritability or anger
Diminished sex drive
Decreased metabolism, increased appetite, weight gain
Gastrointestinal issues: trouble with digestion, stomach upset, diarrhea, vomiting, IBS
Lack of motivation or focus
Exercising less often
Overeating or undereating
Increase in anger
Irregular menstrual periods/decreased fertility (females)
Risk for death under age 45
Risk for Type 2 diabetes
Step 2: Determine Whether You Qualify for Federal Family and Medical Leave
Not every worker can take a medical leave, so assess whether you qualify for federal family and medical leave. FMLA affords an employee the job-protected ability to temporarily leave one's job then return. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was initially passed in 1993 for the purpose of permitting covered employees to take reasonable, unpaid periods of time away from work in these situations:
- personal medical leave to attend to one's own serious health conditions, including pregnancy complications
- family medical leave to attend to the serious health conditions of eligible family members
- parental bonding leave upon the arrival of a child by birth, adoption, or foster care placement.
A 2008 amendment then added two additional military service-related rationales for granting federal FMLA:
- qualifying exigency leave to help manage family affairs when an employee's family members are deployed or on active duty and
- military caregiver leave to provide care for an injured or seriously ill active service member or veteran who is a covered relative or next of kin.
In short, what FMLA does is this: it allows covered employees to take unpaid time off from their job while their group health insurance benefits continue to be covered and their job is protected. Think of FMLA as a job "placeholder." Employees on FLMA are permitted time away from work to focus on their health or personal issue(s), and then they are reinstated to their previous job or an equivalent job.
Am I Eligible for FMLA?
Gauge your eligibility for FMLA by reviewing the following factors related to employer size and length of employment:
- You work for an employer at a location with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius
- You have worked for the company for at least a year AND
- You have worked for your employer at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12-month period.
How Much Time Away From Work Does FMLA Provide?
Under the FMLA, eligible employees can receive up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave or up to 26 weeks for issues that relate to relatives who are service members and require care. Leave can be taken continuously, intermittently, or a combination of the two types. Intermittent leave is sometimes known as reduced schedule leave and can be an especially valuable benefit for employees struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses. You may find that a schedule of four-hour days, four-day weeks, or several hours off here and there can provide you needed relief for your medical condition. FMLA provides incredible flexibility so apply for it and use it, if needed.
Check State Family and Medical Leave Laws Too
In addition to federal FMLA, some states and even localities have their own family and medical leave laws. You may wonder: What's the point of having a state family and medical leave law when we already have the federal FMLA? State leave laws can be altogether different from federal FMLA. They can also be more generous. Examples include:
- lower eligibility thresholds and wider coverage, such as shorter length of service requirements and leave laws applying to smaller employers
- expanded leave time for certain situations
- inclusion of certain types of leaves that the FMLA does not cover (e.g., school visitation, organ and bone marrow donation, crime victim leave, short-term family leave) and
- paid family and medical leave.
It pays to be informed, so be sure to check the leave law for your specific jurisdiction, focusing particular attention on eligibility requirements and the benefits that the leave law provides. Google "family and medical leave law + (the name of your state)." You can also check your workplace's Human Resources and Compliance bulletin board. Workplaces are required by law to physically post legal notices affecting employment where all applicants and employees can see them. Usually, the legal employment postings bulletin board is in or around HR.
Step 3: Short-Term Disability and Getting Paid for Medical Leave
You may be wondering, "Will I be paid for my medical leave?" Note that Federal FMLA does NOT cover compensation for leave. Since you're already stressed, it's important not to add financial pressures to your burden. Let's make sure your stress leave will be paid, if at all possible.
Assuming you don't work in one of the handful of jurisdictions that offer paid sick leave, then your best option is likely to rely upon short term disability (STD) benefits. About two-thirds of workers have STD benefits through their employer or another source.4 This type of insurance is most commonly offered through medium and large-sized employers, but workers can also buy STD coverage individually or at group rates through a professional organization, college alumni society, or another group they belong to. If you're unsure about whether you are covered by an STD plan at work, ask your Human Resources department.
Prior to taking leave, review your STD policy and pay special attention to
- notification requirements for filing a claim
- the length of any "elimination period," a waiting period before approved claims are paid out—usually about a week
- the percent of weekly salary paid (up to a pay cap) - it's standard to receive 60% of your weekly salary while on STD, although some plans pay 100% or may base payments on the employee's length of service
- whether your employer requires employees to use up all paid vacation time, sick time, personal time, etc.
- duration of STD benefits - often 3-6 months
- policy exclusions such those involving pre-existing conditions or acts of self-harm.
In the best of circumstances, FMLA and STD run in parallel with FMLA affording you time off from work and STD permitting you to get paid for your time off. You may be required to periodically supply updated information from your healthcare provider about your progress. When you are ready to return to work, your healthcare provider will need to certify your fitness for duty. Alternatively, he or she can also request extensions to your leave of absence if you are not yet ready to return.
Spending Your Medical Leave Wisely
How you spend your stress-based medical leave of absence is up to you. Typically, you cannot be employed elsewhere, even part-time, when on a medical leave of absence. However, you can rest, exercise, pursue hobbies that relax you, catch up with friends and family, learn better coping and relaxation strategies, and focus on improving your wellbeing.
During your leave, sincerely explore whether your current job provides the work environment that best suits you and your skill set. If the answer is no, then it's the ideal time to retool your resume, update your Linked In profile, and get a head start on your job search. While the point of your leave of absence is to return you to work, it doesn't necessarily have to be to a job that causes you ill health. Sometimes when we face duress we need to change ourselves. At other times, we need to change our environments. Do what is required to take care of you.
1Belli, G. (2017, March 30). Most American workers are stressed most of the time. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/29/most-american-workers-are-stressed-most-of-the-time.html
2Mental Health By the Numbers. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers
3Kessler, R. C., Berglund, P., Demler, O., Jin, R., Merikangas, K. R., & Walters, E. E. (2005). Lifetime Prevalence and Age-of-Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Archives of General Psychiatry, 62(6), 593. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.62.6.593
4Schott, F. (2018, April 26). How Many Working Americans Have Adequate Disability Coverage? Retrieved from https://blog.disabilitycanhappe1n.org/how-many-americans-have-disability-coverage/
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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