Not all illnesses can be seen, and this has left many wondering can you take time off work due to stress?
If you ring in sick, it is easier to prove it is genuine if you have a limb hanging off, a hacking cough or a particularly nasty rash.
Contacting your boss to say you need time off can be daunting. Will you be believed? Will your manager think you are faking it? Who hasn’t made that phone call and tried to sound as ill as possible to sound authentically unwell – even when you actually feel poorly?
Asking for time off due to stress can, therefore, be stressful!
But stress is treated, legally, in the same way as physical illness. Should you feel unwell due to stress, you should see your GP as soon as possible. Your GP will tell you how best to deal with your stress and how much time to take off work, if necessary.
And should you need to take time off due to stress, you certainly won’t be alone.
The stress epidemic
The latest report from the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) demonstrates the scale of stress-related absence in the UK.
It reports that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20 was 828,000, a prevalence rate of 2,440 per 100,000 workers. This was statistically significantly higher than the previous period.
In 2019/20 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 51% of all work-related ill health cases and 55% of all working days lost due to work-related ill health.
The main work factors cited by respondents as causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety were workload pressures, including tight deadlines, too much responsibility, and a lack of managerial support.
How long can you be signed off work with stress?
If you are off work for fewer than seven days, you don’t need a sick note for stress and depression. You can ‘self-certify’—which means filling in a form when you return to work. This applies to any sickness, not just mental health issues.
However, if you’re wondering can I take time off work due to stress as longer term sick leave, the official government site elaborates on the procedure and debunks a popular misconception. It says, “Employees must give their employer a doctor’s ‘fit note’ if they’ve been ill for more than 7 days in a row and have taken sick leave. This includes non-working days, such as weekends and bank holidays.”
Yes, you read that right – doctors issue ‘fit’ notes, not sick notes!
The fit note will say that you are either ‘not fit for work’ or ‘may be fit for work’. If it says you ‘may be fit for work’, your employer should discuss any changes that might help you return to work (for example, different hours or tasks). You must be treated as ‘not fit for work’ if there’s no agreement on these changes. Your employer can take a copy of the fit note and you keep the original.
Once you have been off for four days, you will be eligible for Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) if:
- You’re classified as an employee
- Your illness has lasted for a minimum of 4 days in a row
- You earn in excess of £113 per week
- You notify your employer of your sickness within 7 days
While it may be a relief to hear that you can potentially receive SSP if you need to take extended sick leave for stress, the legal minimum you receive is not exactly generous. Your employer is legally obliged to pay the minimum of £89.35 per week, for a maximum of 28 weeks. Beyond that, it’s their decision if they want to continue with SSP.
By way of comparison, the gross weekly pay for someone on a £25,000 salary is over £480. However, many companies do offer more than the government’s minimum rate. And a long-term sick employee is still entitled to annual leave.
Can I take time off work due to stress?
Once the self-certification period (seven days) comes to an end, you will need a doctor’s ‘fit’ note to be legally entitled to sick leave.
If you don’t want to see a doctor, it is down to the discretion of the employer. You’ll need to ask your manager or HR representative “can you take time off work due to stress”? You may be able to negotiate some unpaid leave to recuperate, but there is no legal entitlement without the certification from your GP.
Can work contact me when I am off sick with stress?
There is no rule that says an employer cannot contact an employee during a period of sick leave. However, the contact has to be appropriate and fair. A good employer should care about the welfare of their staff and want to stay in touch to check they are okay. Genuine contact can be beneficial, so you don’t have the feeling of being isolated or ignored.
But contact has to be reasonable. In a recent case, an employee had a successful constructive dismissal claim after contact from the company was considered to be a breach of the implied term of mutual trust and confidence by that employer.
Where possible, it is a good idea to seek to agree on a level of contact during sick leave that is acceptable to both parties.
Can I leave work due to stress?
The simple answer is you can leave any job. You just need to hand in your notice. If you are too stressed to work your notice, you should be able to obtain a fit notice from your GP.
The opposite question is: Can you be sacked for being off work on long-term sickness. Again, the same rules apply for any kind of sickness leave.
An employer can dismiss you if you have been long-term sick, but they must:
Consider if you can return to work. This can be working flexible or part-time hours, or doing different or less stressful work (with training if required)
Consult with you about when you could return to work and if your health will improve
As in all cases, if you feel you have been dismissed unfairly, you can take the case to an employment tribunal.
The best solution of all is to ensure the workplace is not a stressful environment.
According to Unison, “The law says that employers are responsible for the safety of their employees while they are at work, and this includes stress. Certain levels of stress are normal and may even be helpful. However excessive levels of stress can be destructive and lead to psychiatric injury for which the employer may be liable for a claim in a county court for negligence depending upon the circumstances.”
As well as having a legal duty to look after their people, there is also an ethical and moral obligation on the part of employers.
If you manage a team or a business, you should take every step necessary to tackle damaging stress.
Take a look at our Employee Wellbeing and Mental Health at Work resources for more information.
WeThrive can help
We Thrive’s employee engagement platform gets to the heart of how employees are feeling. Our pulse surveys can quickly identify stress points and the platform’s academy provides stress management resources for managers so they can better support employees and minimise the risks.
With We Thrive you can stamp out damaging stress and build healthy and productive teams. Why not give WeThrive a try?
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