Has stress got you feeling down and overwhelmed? It happens, so there’s no reason to feel ashamed.
Whatever the circumstances behind your stress, you might see only one option: stumbling forward, trying to keep your heavy load from burying you. You have to work, so you carry on, hoping stress doesn’t get the best of you and fuel a total emotional collapse.
Another possibility may be open to you, however. Here’s what to know about stress leave.
The demands of a busy or toxic workplace can tax your physical and emotional energy, particularly when ordinary life challenges come at you from other corners, too.
And relentless stress can set you on a quick path to burnout, leaving you so overwhelmed you may not even have the strength to consider how you feel, other than “bad.”
In order to take stress leave, though, you’ll typically need to discuss your symptoms with a mental health professional or healthcare provider, as well as your human resources (HR) department.
That means you’ll need to give a clear explanation of your symptoms and illustrate the ways they affect your daily life — just as you might describe symptoms of a physical illness.
Taking some quiet time alone can give you the chance to perform a quick self-evaluation. Grab a pen and some paper to take a few notes, which you can share with your care provider.
Consider the following:
When under a lot of stress, you might feel:
- anxious or restless
- more irritable or angrier than usual
- sad or tearful
- preoccupied with specific worries or a vague sense of fear
- unmotivated or unable to concentrate
Emotional symptoms often affect work performance and make it harder to engage in activities that help relieve stress. If sadness or irritability leave you disinterested in seeing friends, you might withdraw instead of turning to loved ones for support.
Many people facing severe stress also use food or substances to manage their feelings. You might find yourself:
Stress can cause plenty of physical symptoms, too, including:
- insomnia, nightmares, and other sleep problems
- frequent headaches
- tension and pain in your muscles and chest
- appetite changes
- nausea or digestive problems
These symptoms can have a far-reaching impact. If you have trouble sleeping, you’ll probably feel tired during the day. You might struggle to focus or notice you make a lot of mistakes.
The tension and pain accompanying stress can affect your energy level, leaving you with little motivation for physical activity. Reflecting on the distress keeping you from your usual activities can eventually trigger feelings of depression and hopelessness.
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers several important protections for workers experiencing health concerns.
This law allows you to take unpaid time away from work if you need to take care of a sick family member or if you’re experiencing physical or mental health symptoms serious enough to prevent you from working.
Some quick facts about FMLA:
- You typically won’t receive pay under FMLA. Some companies might continue to pay workers on leave, but FMLA doesn’t require this.
- Your workplace may allow you to use sick days or accumulated time off so you get paid for part of your leave. This depends on company policy.
- You’ll still receive health insurance benefits under FMLA.
- If your company has fewer than 50 employees, it may not offer this type of leave. Public agencies and schools, however, do have to follow FMLA, no matter how many employees they have.
- To qualify, you need to have worked for your employer for at least 12 months. In the last year, you need to have worked at least 1,250 hours, or about 26 hours per week.
- FMLA allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Your job is protected during this time. If your employer can’t give you the exact same job upon your return, they must give you a similar position with roughly the same pay.
FMLA may not seem particularly helpful, since you likely won’t get paid. But think of it this way: Even 1 or 2 weeks away might be enough to ease your stress. Plus, you might be eligible for temporary disability insurance (more on this later).
To receive FMLA benefits from your employer, you’ll typically need documentation from a healthcare provider. This documentation should state that you experience persistent symptoms that negatively affect your health and your ability to work.
Here’s where those notes you took will come in handy. It may seem unfair that you need to “prove” how distressed you are, but stress symptoms often aren’t visible to others. Doctors can’t diagnose stress with a quick swab or blood test, so you need to provide details about how you’re feeling instead.
If possible, see a care provider who has some familiarity with your medical history. If you already work with a therapist, make sure to note any connections between your current symptoms and other issues you’re already getting help for.
Make sure to mention:
- physical and emotional symptoms
- how symptoms affect your health and work performance
- how long you’ve had symptoms
- whether they’ve worsened over time
Your therapist or healthcare provider may also ask how you manage stress on your own, so prepare to share a few coping techniques you’ve tried. A detailed picture helps your care provider better understand the toll stress has taken on your life.
If your current situation prevents you from taking action, explain this, too. Perhaps you’re a single parent who rushes between work and child care responsibilities with barely enough time to breathe, let alone practice self-care.
To request leave, you’ll need to speak to the HR department, though you’ll probably want to keep your direct supervisor informed, too.
If you work for a large company, your employee policy handbook may give specific guidance on whom to reach out to. When making your appointment, let your HR officer know what you want to talk about by saying something along the lines of, “I’d like to request leave for a health condition.”
Bring your documentation to your appointment and be prepared to answer questions about how stress has affected your health and work performance. Be honest about your efforts to manage stress and your difficulty coping.
If certain workplace policies, such as hazardous environments or overtime requirements, have increased your stress, communicate these clearly and respectfully.
For example, you might say: “I understand rigid deadlines allow our customers to receive their orders on time, but the orders keep coming in and I don’t have enough support to provide the turnaround time we promise.”
Talk with your employer as soon as you know you need to take time off. Many employers require 30 days’ advance notice when possible. If you need to take leave more urgently, you’ll still want to provide as much notice as you can.
Your HR department can also offer more guidance or information on other possible options.
Some workplaces offer temporary disability insurance, a type of paid medical leave. This benefit doesn’t always cover mental health issues, such as stress, but it’s still worth asking about, since it can make up some of the wages you’ll lose when taking leave.
Once you start your stress leave, you might feel as if the immense weight holding you down has finally lifted. But stress leave isn’t quite the same as a vacation. Your “job” while on leave is to work toward recovery.
These strategies can help:
Freedom from your typical work schedule can mean more time to sleep, prepare nutritious meals, enjoy quality time with loved ones, and exercise.
These changes can make a big difference, but self-care also includes time for hobbies and other enjoyable activities that relax and recharge you, such as:
If you’ve dealt with stress for so long that you struggle to remember what good self-care looks like, a good first step might be creating a self-care plan.
Get professional support
It’s important to keep up with any recommended treatments during your leave. Without healthy coping techniques in place, you might end up in the same situation once you return to work.
Learning to identify and deal with stress triggers early on can have a big impact on future well-being. Here are some resources you might turn to:
- Your healthcare provider can offer tips for managing physical symptoms.
- You can work with a sleep specialist to address patterns of disrupted sleep.
- A therapist can teach you skills to manage stress more effectively. If you experience anxiety, depression, or other symptoms, talk therapy or cognitive behavioral techniques can help you practice coping in the moment. Your therapist may also recommend alternative approaches, such as a daily meditation practice or art therapy.
Identify key goals
If you get stuck on the need to implement large changes during your time off, your stress leave might end up becoming another source of stress. Instead, explore smaller, manageable changes you can maintain over time.
To get started, take some time to visualize potential outcomes of your stress leave.
Do you see yourself returning to work much recovered and better able to deal with stress as it comes up? If so, your primary goal might center around exploring ways to keep up your stress-reducing habits.
Perhaps you foresee your workplace situation and life circumstances remaining the same. If so, considering alternate options for your future may benefit you. There’s only so much you can do to cope with stress, and there’s no shame in acknowledging you can’t continue in a highly taxing job.
At the end of the day, your primary goal should be protecting your own well-being.
As your mental health improves, you might feel ready to return to work. Re-adjusting to your work environment can feel a little nerve-wracking, so don’t worry if you need to take it slow.
These tips can help you transition back to work more easily:
Decide what you’ll say
Your coworkers will probably express concern about your health — and quite possibly, curiosity about the reasons behind your absence. Having a response planned out ahead of time can help you avoid feeling put on the spot by difficult questions.
For example, you might say: “Thanks for your concern. I was dealing with some health issues, but I’m doing much better now.”
It’s perfectly all right to offer more details, if you choose, but that’s entirely up to you.
Keep your supervisor informed
As you slip back into your usual workflow, keep your supervisor and HR department updated on your health.
Make sure to ask for any support you need. You’re within your rights to ask for reasonable accommodations, such as:
- bringing plants for your workspace
- relocating to a desk or office with natural light
- moving to a quieter or private workspace
- adjusting break time — for example, taking four 10-minute breaks instead of two 20-minute breaks
Take it one day at a time
Recovery takes time, so don’t feel you have to force yourself to do too much before you’re ready.
Try to stay present in each moment and use your newfound coping skills to take note of what improves your workday and what doesn’t.
Don’t hesitate to make changes that maximize your productivity and wellness.
Rolling downhill toward burnout? Stress leave can offer the opportunity to rest and recharge on a much-needed break.
You can find out more about your options and start the process by reaching out to your therapist or healthcare provider.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.