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How to manage stress-related employee absences

17 million working days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2021/22. That’s a huge loss in productivity and, when you’re a small business, it can be crippling. 

Stress-related workplace absences can be difficult to manage. Whether you’re facing long-term stress leave or short-term, it can point to issues with your employees’ experience at work which you need to pick up on and address. 

So, how can you make a difference as an employer and get a handle on stress-related absences? Here’s some top tips from the smart HR and Health & Safety people here at Citation. 

What is the best approach to handling stress-related absences?

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to handling stress-related absences. People are different. And so it’s natural that what makes them stressed and what gets them to a place where they need time off work is going to be unique to them. So that’s where good communication comes in.  

If an employee is on long-term stress leave, think about setting up regular welfare meetings to keep that communication going and discuss if there’s anything you can do to help get them back to work. After all, it’s going to be a lot harder for them to feel comfortable returning to work if they don’t feel supported. 

If the absences are more frequent but not long-term, then it’s important to investigate what’s causing them stress. You can’t fix a problem you’re not aware of, so knowing any potential triggers or hazards is really important for reducing the chance of sick leave happening again. 

How to implement management standards

The management standards set out by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are designed to help you get a handle on stress in the workplace – and they’re what you need to take into account when putting together your stress risk assessments (a legal requirement, by the way). These are:

What are the legal risks of stress-related workplace absence

Employees could bring claims against your business as a result of stress sick leave, including disability discrimination, constructive unfair dismissal, unfair dismissal and personal injury claims. No one wants to be in that position. 

And, as it’s a legal requirement to make sure your people are safe and healthy at work, it’s important that you can prove you’ve taken proactive steps to address any stressors in the workplace with stress risk assessments – otherwise you’re putting yourself at risk of enforcement action from the HSE. 

Returning to work following stress-related absences

Employees returning to work after a stress-related absence? Here’s what to do. 

As we’ve said, communication is key. Make it your priority to get to the root of the issue so you can stop it from happening again. That can be done both formally and informally – here’s some tips from us:

Short-term absence

A return-to-work interview is a great starting point for an employee returning from a short-term absence. This way, you’ll be able to sit down and discuss why they’re taking stress leave and if you can do anything to help them.

Long-term absence

The same applies to employees returning from a long-term absence – a return-to-work interview is crucial. However, keep in mind here that it’s likely you’ll be dealing with a more serious or complicated condition, so you may also need to put in place reasonable adjustments. 

Once you’ve found out what the problem or problems are, supporting them with reasonable adjustments – such as flexible working and disability support – can help them settle back into work comfortably, and make sure you’re meeting your legal obligations. 

What to do if an employee is unable to return to work

If an employee can’t return to work, it’s worth getting a medical report to understand the employee’s condition and if there’s any way you can support them to return to work.

But if an employee can’t return in what you see as a reasonable period, you might need a discussion with them about a capability dismissal. This can be tricky and really needs to be done right – so call our Employment Law experts here for more support, or check out our free guide to dismissals for a good starting point. Remember – we’re always here for you. 

How to reduce stress-related employee absence 

The big question – how can you reduce stress-related employee absence? The best, most proven way is pretty simple – by doing your stress risk assessments. By covering all the HSE’s management standards, you can properly tackle stress at its source and reduce stress-related employee absence. 

Why not check out our blog about understanding the impact of stress in the workplace to understand more about what causes stress-related employee absence?