With the right support measures in place, employers can help to minimise the impact of stress leave on their employees and on the organisation.
The following guide for employers looks at how to support staff returning to work after stress leave, from the statutory duty owed by employers to the practical measures that can be introduced to help reduce or prevent work-related stress in the first place.
Employer duty of care towards staff returning to work after stress leave
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, all employers are under a statutory duty to protect the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees, including an employee’s emotional and mental wellbeing. By law, the employer must do whatever is reasonably practicable to achieve this, including taking all reasonable steps to ensure that an employee’s symptoms are not exacerbated when returning to work after stress leave.
As with any other workplace hazard, under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, the employer is also under a connected duty to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to which an employee is exposed at work, including any mental health risks, and to take reasonable steps to control these risks. As such, all employers must provide their staff with a stress-free and safe place of work.
If an employee has been signed off sick on stress leave, the employer will be on clear notice of the employee’s mental health condition. This means that even if that individual’s stress has not been caused or contributed to by their job role or working environment, the employer remains under a duty to conduct a mental health risk assessment and do all that is reasonably practicable to support that person in the workplace.
In short, the employer must put adequate measures in place to ensure that the employee’s stress is not made worse or re-triggered on their return to work.
How to support employees returning to work after stress leave
If an employee is off work sick with stress, it is important that they are not expected to simply return to work once their doctor has deemed them fit to do so. Given the complex and potentially ongoing impact of stress-related symptoms, careful consideration must first be given as to how best to support a member of staff returning to work after stress leave. This means that conversations must be had prior to an employee’s return to work.
In most cases, unless an employee has been off work for less than seven days and has self-certified their sick leave, they will have a fit note from their GP. Equally, when it comes to stress, most GP’s will exercise some caution and suggest an employee “may be fit for work” having regard to certain occupational advice. The fit note also provides the GP with tick boxes for suggestions on supporting an employee’s return to work. The fit note states “if available” and with the “employer’s agreement”, the employee may benefit from:
- a phased return to work
- altered hours
- amended duties and/or
- workplace adaptations.
The fit note goes on to prompt the GP to comment on any functional effects of the employee’s condition. The GP may, for example, specify the hours or duties that an employee may be able to cope with on their return, or any adaptations that can be made to help alleviate any ongoing symptoms, such as a quiet rest space or longer rest breaks.
The employer is not duty bound to follow this advice. The employee may even have suggestions of their own, where the employer should be open to what the employee has to say about how best to support their mental wellbeing and to manage any stress triggers. However, the fit note can often be a good starting point for a conversation about what steps can be taken to support the employee’s return to work. In this way, by creating open lines of communication, the employer and employee can often find an acceptable way forward.
Even if the employee feels fully recovered, and the GP has stated that they are fit for work without any further advice, stress can easily be triggered if a person is put under too much pressure. In these circumstances, employers should always be wary of an employee returning to work after stress leave on a full-time basis, with all prior duties resumed as normal. It is always best to be cautious, offering the employee the chance to come back to work on a gradual basis so that being back at work, of itself, does not lead to a relapse.
Phased return to work after stress leave
A phased return to work after stress leave is one of the best options available to the employer to ensure a smooth transition. This will enable the employee to gradually return to work, for example, on a part-time basis, to enable them to reacclimatise to the workplace and their normal working environment, and to assess how well they are able to cope.
The employer may also want to combine a phased return with what is known as hybrid-working. This is where an employee works partly from home and party from their normal place of work. In some cases, an employee may already be contracted to work remotely on a full-time basis, in which case a phased return could involve them continuing to work from home but working just mornings or afternoons. However, if the employee is normally required to be in the office or another place of work, by allowing them to work partly from home, where at all possible, this can be a good way of getting them back into a routine.
In all scenarios, the aim is to minimise the risk of exacerbating the employee’s symptoms of stress. However, employers should bear in mind that no one-size-fits-all, where different employees may want different ways of flexible working to accommodate their initial return and reduce their stress levels to an absolute minimum. It may be useful for the employer to make some suggestions to the employee as to how a phased return could work. The employee should also be asked for their own suggestions as to what they think might help. By chatting openly with the employee about returning to work after stress leave can often go a long way to alleviating any worries that may be triggers for their stress, simply by offering some understanding and being open to finding the best way forward.
Return to work plan
Once an employee has returned to work, either with or without measures in place to help them adjust, a plan must still be put in place to assess and monitor their mental health. In many organisations, a one-off back-to-work interview will be arranged. However, with cases of stress, where relapse is not uncommon, or the employee may have ongoing symptoms in any event, there will need to be more regular one-to-ones and appraisals.
To be able to properly assess and monitor mental health, ideally there should be a minimum three to six month plan in place to regularly check on the employee’s wellbeing. Team leaders and line managers must also be alert to any changes in behaviour or obvious signs that the employee may be struggling to cope at work.
One of the most effective steps that an employer can take in supporting mental health on a return to work is by proactively checking on the wellbeing of the employee, where employers should not rely solely on their staff letting them know if they are experiencing stress. This is because an employee suffering ongoing symptoms may be unwilling to admit to how they are feeling, so it may be up to management to spot the signs.
Spotting the signs of stress can be difficult, as stress can manifest itself in lots of different ways, but common signs and symptoms to watch out for include:
- a decrease in performance and productivity
- an inability to follow simple instructions or carry out normal tasks
- uncharacteristic mistakes or accidents at work
- a lack of engagement, motivation and/or enthusiasm
- a change in attitude, such as being cynical and/or negative
- a change in behaviour, such as becoming withdrawn, sensitive and/or irritable
- self-isolation or social withdrawal from colleagues
- increased conflict and confrontation with colleagues
- physical signs of fatigue or complaints about feeling tired
- a deterioration in the employee’s appearance or personal hygiene
- signs of alcohol and/or substance misuse.
It is also important to identify the root cause of the employee’s problems, to help ensure that an employee suffering from stress is not subject to the same risk factors that may have caused or contributed to their symptoms in the first place. This means that the employer may need, for example, to review the employee’s job description, reduce their workload, modify their performance targets or even consider transferring them into a different role.
In cases where workplace conflict has caused or contributed to an employee’s stress, the employer may need to take disciplinary action against the alleged perpetrators, for example, to address any bullying or harassment in the workplace.
Failure to support staff after stress leave
There are several kinds of risks for an employer around failing to support a member staff returning to work after stress leave, both practical and legal.
By allowing an employee to return to work without appropriate measures in place to minimise and manage their stress levels, this can easily result in a relapse. In turn, this could lead to prolonged periods of further sick leave and even the loss of a valuable member of staff, especially where work has been the main cause or contributing factor.
In cases where employees feel forced to resign because of a failure to support their mental wellbeing, this could lead to claims for constructive dismissal. Under the Equality Act 2010, the employer could be guilty of unlawful discrimination for failing to make all reasonable adjustments for an employee suffering from a mental impairment amounting to a disability.
However, even in cases where an employee is able to muddle through, doing the best that they can to manage their stress levels without the employer’s support, this can still have far-reaching effects on the employer’s business, not least when it comes to low performance levels and lost productivity. This is known as presenteeism, where employees are not fully functioning at work because of an illness, injury or other condition.
Overall, the long-term costs for a business when it comes to work-related stress can be significant, especially where the workplace culture is such that a number of employees are suffering from stress. This can seriously affect attendance rates, work rates and staff retention rates. It can even affect the reputation of a business and employer brand, where organisation-wide steps may need to be taken to address a wider cultural problem.
Avoiding work-related stress
As the old adage goes, prevention is the best medicine, and this is certainly true when it comes to work-related stress leave. Fortunately, there are various measures that can be taken by an employer to help reduce the risk of stress within the workplace, and to ensure that early intervention helps to resolve any issues before they become entrenched.
Possible measures could include:
- providing mental health and wellbeing training for both staff and management, to help raise awareness around mental health triggers and how to reduce stress
- introducing a wellbeing workplace policy, setting out procedures for sick leave and signposting individuals to mental health services and support
- fostering a safe environment in which staff can openly discuss concerns and complaints, giving them the confidence to address workplace problems without fear of reprisals
- creating a positive workplace culture, one in which mental health is not stigmatised, and where staff feel free to admit to feeling stressed and the reasons for this
- implementing wellbeing initiatives, such as lifestyle assessments, mental health days and discounted gym memberships, helping to reduce levels of stress, as well as showing employees that their health and happiness is valued by their employer.
DavidsonMorris’ human resource specialists work with employers on all aspects of workforce management, employee wellbeing and engagement, including managing stress-related absences and the return to work. Working closely with our team of employment lawyers, we offer a holistic solution to support with legal risk management while optimising performance and personnel welfare. For advice on a specific issue, speak to our experts today.
Returning to Work After Stress Leave FAQs
How long can you be signed off work with stress?
There is no maximum timeframe over which someone can be signed off work with stress, where much will depend on the size and resources of their employer. However, the employee will need ongoing sick notes from their GP.
How do I go back to work after burnout?
One of the best ways to return to work after being off sick with employee burnout is to do so gradually. A phased return to work after stress, including reduced hours or amended duties, can help to minimise any triggers.
How soon does a return to work need to be done?
A return to work should only be discussed with an employee once they have been deemed fit for work by their GP, or potentially fit for work, for example, with a phased return, altered hours, amended duties or workplace adaptations.
Does going back to work help anxiety?
Going back to work can help to alleviate anxiety in cases where being absent from work is exacerbating an employee’s worries. However, any therapeutic effects can easily be undermined, unless the return to work is managed carefully by the employer.
Last updated: 16 December 2022