Upset woman working from home office as hero image for article about mental Health Awareness Week 2023
Blog • 24.04.19

How to handle an employee off with work-related stress

Kate L
HR Consultant

Get help with your HR

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression now account for more than half of work absences in Great Britain. With two-fifths of organisations reporting that stress-related absence has increased in the last year, it’s becoming a pressing issue for today’s employers.

Stress impacts staff productivity and retention, which in turn affects profitability and stability in a business of any size, so it’s an issue that’s important to address. It’s also, by law, an employer’s responsibility to do so.

Having a stress at work policy and carrying out stress-related risk assessments are essential to managing and reducing stress in the workplace.

But if you find yourself faced with an employee who’s already been signed off with stress, what practical steps can you take?

In this post we’ll cover:

An employee is unlikely to return to work unless the source of stress has been alleviated or removed. It’s a good idea to try to speak with them as soon as possible to find out how you might be able to alleviate the causes of stress, and help facilitate their return to work.

The following steps should help:

1. Have a discussion or meet with the employee

This could be over the phone or in person. If you do meet them, choose a neutral venue away from the office, like a café. Doing so will help establish the meeting as an informal one designed to support the employee, rather than something additional to stress over.

2. Enquire sensitively about the reasons behind their stress at work

Take care not to pressure the employee to reveal more than is necessary or more than they feel comfortable with. It’s important to appreciate that mental health issues can be difficult to discuss, and the employee may be anxious that the revelation of a mental health issue may affect their job security.

3. Avoid talking about issues that may increase their stress

Keep your focus on how you can support their recovery and return to work.

4. Carry out a stress risk assessment

This will help you to identify the workplace stressors and the reasonable adjustments that can be made to help the employee’s return to work.

5. Define an action plan with the employee

Outline the steps you will take to help alleviate the identified work-place stressors.

6. Avoid making excessive contact with the employee while they’re off sick

This is a sensitive balance. Having long periods without making any contact can lead employees to feel forgotten about and increase anxiety about returning to work. However, excessive communication may lead to further stress.

Agree a communication plan with the employee and stick to it.

7. Hold a return to work meeting with the employee

Recognise that if the employee has been off for a while, returning is likely to be stressful in itself. Welcome them warmly and update them on any changes in the company while they’ve been away. Review the adjustments you’ve put in place to support them and encourage them to let you know if they’re continuing to struggle.

8. Arrange to check-in with the employee

See how they’re doing after several weeks to make sure the measures you have put in place are helping.

What to do when an absent employee is refusing to meet with you?

Where there is refusal from an employee to meet you for a Sickness Absence Review meeting, we’d suggest that you firstly reassure the employee. Let them know that the purpose of the meeting is for you to gain a better understanding of the reasons for their absence, so that you can support them with their return to work. Also consider whether they would be more comfortable meeting with a different member of the management team.

If they still unreasonably refuse you can write to them to advise that the meeting may be held in their absence, and a decision made based only on the information that has been provided in writing e.g. GP fitness to work notes, and any related correspondence.

What are reasonable adjustments to help alleviate workplace stress?

Reasonable adjustments depend heavily on the employee’s specific disability or condition, but examples could include:

  • changing working times or hours
  • reducing or changing duties within the role,
  • adjusting the working environment, e.g. working from home, investing in specialist equipment.
  • What is considered ‘reasonable’ will depend on the costs involved, the size of your business and the difference the adjustments would make to the employee’s performance.
  • If an employee has a disability that is impacting their performance, then it’s vital that you document your consideration of reasonable adjustments and seek expert medical guidance.

Do I have to make reasonable adjustments?

If work-related stress amounts to what employment law considers a ‘disability’, then employers have a legal obligation to make reasonable adjustments.

Ultimately the decision as to whether someone is ‘disabled’ or whether an adjustment is ‘reasonable’ would be decided by an Employment Tribunal.

Doctors, specialists and Occupational Health advisors would be able to provide a view on an individual case, but in all cases of long-term absence, we recommend considering carefully if the illness could be deemed as a disability and to make appropriate adjustments if possible.

What if the employee goes off sick with stress again?

If the employee does not achieve a successful return, this may bring into question their ability to remain in their role and in employment with you.

As soon as you can, arrange a Sickness Absence Review to discuss why they haven’t been able to sustain their return to work and whether re-deployment to another role or any other adjustments would enable them to do so.

If no reasonable adjustments or alternative arrangements can be made, it may be necessary to consider terminating their employment on health grounds, following a Stage 3 Long Term Sickness Absence Review meeting.

It’s strongly recommended to seek expert advice at this point to ensure your approach has been fair and reasonable and that you have not discriminated.

What to do when an employee goes off sick with stress during a disciplinary procedure?

Employees going off sick with stress during a disciplinary procedure is a scenario we encounter a lot. It’s definitely one of the trickier issues to resolve. The disciplinary process can drag out, while the employee continues to benefit from sick pay.

If an employee reports they’re too stressed to attend a disciplinary meeting, what are the options?

Fortunately, there are some ways out of this problem for employers, a lot of which rests on being fair and reasonable throughout the process:

1) Invite the employee, in writing, to a disciplinary meeting at least twice.

If they fail to attend the first meeting, rescheduling a second meeting demonstrates an attempt to accommodate the employee.

2) Consider alternative ways to hold the meeting.

Offer to hold the meeting away from the workplace, at the employee’s home, perhaps even via telephone/video conference, in writing, or with an employee-nominated third party attending on their behalf. This way you can demonstrate that you have tried to be as reasonable and accommodating of the employee’s situation as possible.

3) Hold the meeting in the employee’s absence

This should be a last resort, but if all your attempts to accommodate the employee fail, it may be possible to hold the meeting without them. You must still give them the option to attend, but make clear to them that the meeting will proceed in their absence.

As every situation like this will vary, and the risks of getting it wrong are costly, this is definitely a situation where professional advice should be sought.

Preventing work-related stress absence

You don’t need us to tell you that prevention is better than cure! What’s more, employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of their employees. So you should already be conducting risk assessments and taking actions to prevent staff from experiencing a stress-related illness because of their work.

The first step in prevention is identifying the potential causes of workplace stress. These can include:

  • unrelenting or heavy workload, long hours,
  • onerous procedures,
  • office politics,
  • lack of autonomy or flexibility,
  • lack of reward
  • tensions with senior staff members or managers.

Recent research conducted by CIPD found that almost two-thirds (62%) of respondents identified heavy workloads as the top cause of taking time off for stress, with management style taking second place.

The good thing about all these factors is that they can be addressed, and definitely should be once identified.

The symptoms of work-related stress

Know how to spot the signs of stress in your employees, watching carefully for the following symptoms of stress:

  • Increased lateness
  • Frequent short-term absences
  • Changes in personality – a persistent short temper, frustration, emotional outbursts
  • Disengagement or distraction in a usually energetic staff member
  • Decreased productivity or quality of work

If you notice these kinds of changes in an employee, try to address this with them to find out the root cause and whether it’s work-related. Listen in a sensitive and open-minded way to how the affected employee sees the problem and what they think may help.

If the source of stress is work-related – someone on the team isn’t pulling their weight, technical problems, lack of or inadequate tools or equipment, unclear direction, workplace bullying etc – it’s likely within your control to improve or fix the situation.

Get HR Support

If you have an employee struggling with work-related stress, our HR consultants can help.

Find out more

Find out more

A happy employee in a virtual meeting while being in the office.