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How to request stress leave from work

September 2, 2022 - 16 min read


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What is stress leave?

Why stress leave is important

Signs you should take a stress leave

How to get a stress leave from work

Tips for having “the talk”

What to do on stress leave

Tips for going back to work

The road to relief

Requesting stress leave from work is, well, stressful. But these tips can make it easier.

Stress often feels inevitable.

Whether you’re shuttling your kids to daycare or preparing for your next big meeting, there’s enough out there to get your heart pumping. 

And that’s not always a bad thing. Good stress, also known as eustress, is necessary to help you perform at your best. It gives you the jolt you need to prepare, perform, and succeed in life.

Unfortunately, stress becomes a problem if you never find relief. The negative effects accumulate slowly and quietly. And before you know it, you’re at risk of burnout.

It’s important to be aware of your limits. Everyone’s experience with stress is different. But if you pay attention to your stressors, you’ll know when you’ve taken on too much. And when you do, you might consider requesting stress leave from work. 

The prospect of doing this can be scary. A lot of people still feel a stigma around discussing mental health at work, so worrying about how your manager will react is normal.

But try not to worry. We see you. Requesting stress leave is a big decision, and we want to help. 

We believe that information is power, so here’s everything you need to know about requesting a stress leave at work.


What is stress leave?

Stress leave is when you spend away from work to take care of your physical and mental health. And this is different from vacation time. Stress leave is for when a few days off aren’t enough to reduce your stress levels. 

You can spend your leave however you want. You can visit friends, spend time in nature, meditate, or journal — whatever you need to recover. The goal is to make time for self-care.

Do you get paid for stress leave at work?

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA), you’re entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a “serious health condition that makes the employee unable to perform the essential functions of his or her job.” 

But FMLA leave only applies to organizations with more than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius of the workplace, and only employees with 1,250 recorded work hours are eligible to apply.

If you’re an eligible employee, you can request stress leave without worrying about losing your job.

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Why stress leave is important

If left untreated, your stress can have serious mental and physical consequences. The reasons for this come down to biology.

When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones like cortisol and adrenaline/epinephrine. These constrict your blood vessels, raise your heart rate, and increase your blood sugar to respond to a potential threat.

In small doses, these hormones aren’t harmful. In fact, they play an essential evolutionary role in human survival. They give us the jolt necessary to either fight or evade dangerous situations. That’s why we call stress our fight or flight response.

But you were never meant to sustain these hormones for a long time, and chronic stress can lead to all sorts of health issues, such as:

Treat your work-related stress before it leads to these health problems.

If you need help assessing your stress levels and learning new ways to manage it, try working with BetterUp. Our coaches will support you and help you work through life's challenges. 

woman-having suffering-from-chest-pain-stress-leave-from-work

Signs you should take a stress leave

Depending on your situation, you might be wondering, “Should I take a stress leave from work?” 

This can be a difficult question to answer, but you should start by checking in with yourself. Here are some signs to consider.

Emotional signs

  • Anxiousness or restlessness
  • Irritability
  • Sadness
  • Constant worry
  • A perpetual sense of fear
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of motivation
  • Reduced work performance
  • Imbalanced personal life

Physical signs

  • Insomnia
  • Frequent headaches
  • Muscle pains
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nausea
  • Digestive problems

How to get a stress leave from work

So what now? If you think you need a stress leave, the usual process involves several steps (that might vary by organization).

Step 1: Look up your state’s laws

The requirements dictated by the FMLA are the minimum that all states must provide. But each state has its own medical leave laws — some of which are more generous than the federally-mandated ones. Make sure you’re aware of what your state offer

Step 2: Review your employer’s policy

Your organization may also have a more generous stress leave policy than the FMLA or your state. Look for information about:

  • Available paid time off (PTO): Depending on your employer, you may accrue vacation days. Many companies require a probationary period before providing PTO.
  • Guidelines about your use of PTO: Some organizations may need you to follow specific guidelines when booking vacation. You may only be allowed to take one week at a time to not leave your post for too long.
  • Sick leave policies: If you want to use paid sick days for your stress leave, you may have to provide a valid medical certificate.

Step 3: Consult your healthcare provider

If you have a family doctor, book an appointment. List your symptoms and be 100% honest about how you’re feeling. This will help them determine whether stress is the root cause of your symptoms or if there’s something else happening.

Step 4: Request a doctor’s note

Health professionals are trained to help people in your exact situation. They’ll have no issue providing a note if it’s necessary for your recovery.

Step 5: Time your request appropriately

According to the FMLA, you must provide at least 30 days notice for planned leave like childbirth or a medical procedure. But if that’s not possible, you should notify your employer “as soon as practicable.”

Step 6: Meet with your human resources department

Now it’s time to make your request. Set up an appointment with your HR department. Let them know it’s urgent.

Bring your documentation to the meeting and be confident. You have every right to request this time. It’s important for your health, and they should acknowledge that.

You can also be open about your symptoms and share their causes. If it’s something to do with your work environment, discuss it now.

Step 7: Discuss your options

Your HR representative might have additional resources for you. You may qualify for temporary disability insurance, which is akin to paid sick leave, or they may also suggest working from home or switching to part-time hours.

Intermittent stress leave could also be on the table. This involves either spending less time at work or taking your days off non-sequentially. Just make sure to ask your doctor if this is advisable. Intermittent breaks may not be enough to recover from stress.


Tips for having “the talk”

Requesting a mental stress leave from work can be, well, stressful. Just remember that it’s okay to ask for time. You have the right to take care of yourself.

As you discuss your stress leave with your employer, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Be confident. You’re doing the right thing in addressing your mental health issues. 
  2. Have your documents ready. Have your doctor’s note? Good. This will help justify your request.
  3. Don’t sell yourself short. It’s okay to negotiate your time off. Just make sure you get enough time away to recover.
  4. Be honest about how you’re feeling. Describe your symptoms and the conditions that led to them. This can help your employer create a healthier environment when you return. 


What to do on stress leave

Now that you’re on your leave of absence, use it wisely. Here’s how you can maximize your stress recovery:

  1. Take care of yourself. Recovery is a full-time job. Use your free days to re-connect with old hobbies, sleep well, and eat healthy food. The goal is to recharge and improve your wellness.
  2. Identify your stressors. Get to the bottom of what’s making you stressed. Then, make a plan for your return to work. 
  3. Keep up the medical appointments. Your doctor may have given you a treatment plan for your time off work. Make sure you follow their recommendations. 
  4. Get professional help. It’s normal to need help during this time. Consider therapy to learn new ways of coping with stress.
  5. Set goals. Imagine what your life could be like if you weren’t so stressed. Create goals to build that life.

Tips for going back to work

Returning to work after stress leave can be intimidating. You might be anxious about seeing your colleagues, catching up on new developments, or confronting your workload. 

Don’t worry. It’s okay to take it slow. Here are some tips to make things smoother:

  1. Prepare your talking points. Your colleagues will probably be concerned about your health. Or, at the very least, curious about your absence. Feel free to keep things vague if they prod. A perfectly fine response: “I was dealing with some health issues, but I’m better now.”
  2. Work closely with your supervisor. Keep them updated on your health. You can even ask for accommodations such as relocating your desk or bringing plants to work. Whatever you need to feel more comfortable.
  3. Don’t rush. Take it one day at a time. Be mindful of your limits and use your stress management skills to mitigate potential stressors.


The road to relief

There’s no shame in asking for stress leave. You can ask for time off. And one good way to manage stress better is to rest, make a habit of taking breaks, including time off, before you become unwell. 

Chronic stress will sneak up on you if you’re not careful, causing health problems. Be honest with yourself about your symptoms. And if you feel it’s necessary, consult your doctor. Together you can find the healthiest path forward.

Ideally, people would never need stress leave. That's part of the goal of developing and practicing mental fitness every day. With support, you can learn the skills and develop the behaviors and mindsets that will help you experience stress differently. You can't avoid all stress (and you wouldn't want to), but everyone can learn to manage it in healthier and more productive ways. 

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Published September 2, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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