Stress leave is when an employee takes personal leave from work due to stress. In Australia, stress leave is not an official category of leave. However, full-time employees are entitled to personal leave, which they can take to recover from physical or mental illness, including stress.

What is Stress?

Stress is when a person feels overwhelmed and unable to deal with certain life circumstances.

For example, work-related stress may occur when an employee feels they are unable to cope with: 

  • an unmanageable workload; 
  • lack of control of their tasks; or 
  • emotionally difficult situations.

Causes of Stress

The workplace can often become unpredictable as conditions change. For example, new projects may pop up or staff changes can land an employee in the middle of somebody else’s task. Additionally, work volume can fluctuate and deadlines can be challenging to meet. 

The most common causes of work-related stress include:

  • high or low workload;
  • poor support;
  • lack of clarity in role;
  • disorganisation;
  • isolated working conditions; and
  • negative workplace relationships, including bullying.

Stress Leave

Under the Australian Government’s National Employment Standards, employers may take leave from work due to personal reasons. This may include illness or caring for another person who is ill. Illness includes mental illnesses such as stress and anxiety. Stress leave is personal leave an employee takes to relieve workplace pressure and recover from stress-related symptoms. In Australia, stress leave is not a category of leave in itself and only refers to the cause of personal leave.

How Does an Employer Grant Stress Leave?

Employers grant stress leave in the same manner as they would grant personal leave for other illnesses (for example, usually through HR in larger businesses). Under Australia’s National Employment Standards, permanent employees are entitled to 1 hour of personal leave for every 26 hours worked. This ratio of 1:26 usually equates to 10 days of personal leave per year for full-time employees, and 1:26 pro-rata for part-time employees.

Employers’ Obligations Surrounding Stress Leave

Work, Health and Safety (WHS) laws state that employers have a duty of care for employees’ safety. This includes employees’ psychological safety. Accordingly, employers should maintain WHS policies that prevent employees from creating situations that may cause stress or mental health issues to coworkers. 

For example, you could introduce a no-bullying policy to your workplace.

The law protects employees from any adverse actions taken by an employer in relation to employees suffering from mental illness, including stress.

Returning to Work

When employees take personal leave due to stress, they should take care of their health and focus on being well enough to return to work. During this time, employers should take the claim seriously and support the employee to get back to full health and return to work. Accordingly, it may be necessary to assess the employee’s situation to identify any potential causes of stress and adjust their working conditions to limit stressful situations in the future. SafeWorkAustralia has some recommendations to reduce stress upon returning to work, including: 

  • writing tasks down for clarity;
  • modifying the work environment; or 
  • managing the number of tasks the employee must complete.

The Best Treatment is Prevention

Employers should prioritise creating an accepting workplace in relation to mental health and encourage open discussion. Stress-free employees are more engaged with their tasks, take fewer sick days and generally provide an overall improved performance. Early detection and stress management could prevent a future psychological injury compensation claim against your business. You should regularly check in on employees to see how they are managing their workload and their environment. Many businesses are opening the discussion for mental health and providing relaxation and mindfulness support, such as meditation and yoga sessions. Ensure your employees are aware of mental health organisations that they can reach out to. These include Lifeline, Beyondblue, Black Dog Institute and Sane.

COVID-19 and Stress

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted society in many ways. Quarantine and working from home are creating a sense of isolation. Existing jobs are changing to make working conditions more challenging and, for many, loss of income is creating financial stress. You should be aware that the COVID-19 pandemic may be causing additional personal stress for employees, and as a result, requests for stress leave may increase during this period.

The Australian Government is offering Medicare subsidised psychological therapy sessions for people affected by the pandemic.

Key Takeaways

Stress leave is when an employee takes personal leave due to work-related stress. Although stress leave is not an official category of leave, employees may use personal leave to take time off work when they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. As an employer, you should take requests for stress leave seriously. Stress prevention is better than trying to deal with the effects of a stressed workforce, so you should implement strategies to help your employees cope with their roles. If you need help understanding your employees’ leave entitlements, contact LegalVision’s employment lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.  

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