How to handle employee off with work-related stress

The 2020 CIPD reports that 37% of businesses in the UK have seen increases in stress-related absences. These absences have been attributed to poor management and work overload. This is despite an overall decrease in the absenteeism records over the last year. Absenteeism is decreasing and yet the latest CIPD figures illustrate that other issues like presenteeism are increasing. Presenteeism is when employees are working whilst ill. Leaveism is also increasing. This trend is affecting organisations productivity and profitability. Working with and handling employees in the right way whilst off sick and proactive Resilience Training will ensure that this trend is averted in your organisation.

Details on the CIPD report shows that:

  • 83% ‘presenteeism’ (going to work when ill) in their organisation
  • 25% say that presenteeism has got worse since 2019
  • 63% have observed ‘leaveism’ (such as using holiday leave to work)

However the more startling statistics in the report shows that:

  • 55% say their organisation hasn’t taken any steps to address the issue.

Handling work-related stress in the right way will reduce stress-related issues in the workplace. Giving employees space and time will mean that they benefit from time away from work it will encourage a speedy return. As part of that recovery, it is important to keep the communication channels open. So that the employee can remain up to date with developments at work; but also provided HR with a clear understanding of when they will be returning to work.

Stress working from home

What you shouldn’t do when an employee is off with work-related stress

There are a number of issues to consider when an employee is off with work-related stress. Organisations have a duty of care to make reasonable adjustments for employees to return to work. Whilst there are no legal obligations about stress at work, the Health and Safety at Work Act requires organisations to ensure the welfare of employees including their mental wellbeing.

Under the Equality Act 2010 it is against the law for an organisation to discriminate against an impairment.

An impairment is considered “a substantial and long-term adverse effect on the ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Being under a lot of stress and worrying constantly about work— is considered an impairment. In particular, if the level of stress is affecting the employee’s ability to work or enjoy life. In this context, mental health is considered as equally important as a physical disability.

As an organisation if you fail to make reasonable adjustments that facilitate a return to work, you’ll be opening yourself up to disability discrimination claims and an employment tribunal.

What should you do when an employee is off work-related stress?

There are ‘reasonable changes’ an employer is obliged to carry out including changes to employees working environment, reducing workload, offering home options and flexibility. As well as other management skills for exampling ensuring that instructions are clear and consistent.

stress affecting sleep

In addition when an employee is off with work related stress, there is an agreed protocol which includes the standard procedure:

  • Schedule a time – convenient to both – to discuss reasons and steps taken to understand more about the situation and possible solutions
  • Whilst some employees will feel uncomfortable revealing the true nature of their sickness absence, it is vital to stress the discretion and confidence in job security of any conversations. Focusing on being positive and the steps that will be taken to rectify the situation.
  • Following up with internal discussions and completing a ‘stress risk assessment’ will facilitate a swift return. In addition the assesment will provide insights and as a better understanding of how to avoid future occurrences.
  • Discuss with the employee the return-to-work action plan and how you will communicate – times, and preferred method ie email/telephone.
  • Regular contact with the employee will aid the transition back to the office.

Avoiding the ‘elephant in the room’ will exacerbate feelings of stress and anxiety.

How do you welcome back an employee who has been off with work-related stress?

In order to facilitate a successful return to work it is important to actively listen to employee issues and address those issues.  Actively engaging employees by communicating what is going on within the business as well as how you are adapting their role, keep employees in the loop will help them return to work.

Communication that adjustments have been made where appropriate offering flexible hours or part-time working in the short term or change tasks to reduce stress and workload. As well as a review workstation or working environments.

The timing of the return is critical.  Beginning the return too early could risk adding to the stress load, whilst starting too late may mean difficulty adapting to the changes that have occurred at work during their absence. Crucially maintaining an open and regular communication throughout the sick period will ensure that this is well managed.

Encourage an open and warm conversation and discuss what has changed on the basis of their comments.  This open feedback loop will encourage a quick return, easier transitions to previous levels of productivity. 

How do you continue to support an employee once they’re back at work?

Following up on this discussion on a timetable and regular basis is a proactive way of avoiding future leaves of absence.

Agreed dates and times and relevant contact point to check on employee’s progress is important.

Proactive Resilience Training will reduce sickness and work-related stress. Taking a positive approach that meets employees mental health issues before they become long term chronic will ensure a healthy workforce. Educating and supporting your employees on mental health issues before they become an issue.

Resilience Training covers physical and mental health issues. As well as stress management. Working with employees to get the right nutrition for their wellbeing and sleep will ensure a stronger workforce. Training that focuses on resilience will enable your employees to recognise bad habits that are causing them to be unhealthy and unhappy.

Next steps

If you are looking to incorporate proactive Resilience Training into your organisation so that you can reduce long term sick, increase productivity and attract and retain key performers then the best way forward is to book a call with me, Adele Stickland and together we can discover what stage your organisation is currently at, and how you can best implement the most proactive strategy that will serve your employees.

If you or your organisation would like assistance in creating or developing an existing Resilient programme to frame conversations and support managers and employees then:


CIPD 9th April 2019 Rise in stress at work linked to poor management

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Adele Stickland

Business Psychologist & ICF Accredited Coach | Expert in Team Dynamics & Communication Working with organisations to improve team dynamics and psychological safety by creating collaborative & productive teams. An MSc in organisational psychology and awards in education and training enable me to combine evidence-based approaches & tools to support individuals and groups in professional & personal development #Highperformanceteams #Millennialworkforce #Leadershipdevelopment #Employeeretentionstrategies #Millennialjobhopping #Managingmillennials #Teamengagement #Workforcemobility #Professionalgrowthandmentoring #Organisationalculturemillennials

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