How to handle employee off with work-related stress?

In this guide, we will discuss How to handle when an employee off with work-related stress, what to do when an employee goes off sick, what to do when they come back, what can you do as an employer, and also if they frequently are being signed off work due to stress or for long periods of time.

If you want to know how to handle an employee who has been off work with stress, follow these steps:

  • Talk to the employee, if possible meet in person. 
  • Enquire with a lot of tact and empathy about the reason why they feel stressed at work.
  • Try to avoid talking about possible triggers that could make their stress worse.
  • Carry out a stress risk assessment and define an action plan with the employee.

Moreover, employers are increasing their awareness of how Work-related stress is becoming more common among employees and how detrimental it can be to employee’s health and wellbeing. 

Kate L, a Chartered MCIPD HR Consultant specializing in employee relations, rewards, and mental health in the workplace indicates “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.”

Employers have the duty to guarantee their employee’s health and wellbeing by ensuring their work policies are being followed and risk assessments are being carried out to help reduce stress in the workplace.

If an employee has been signed off with work-related stress, it is unlikely they will go back to work unless the source of their stress has been identified and adjusted/removed.

Talking to the employee as soon as you are aware of their absence and finding the causes of their stress can help alleviate the situation facilitating their return.

Step 1: have a discussion with the employee

It is always better to have a face to face conversation with the employee but you can also discuss it over the phone.

If they do agree to meet you in person, make sure to have an informal conversation at a neutral place, such as the cafeteria.

In addition, avoid treating the conversation as a police interrogation since the idea is to have a neutral environment where the employer can express freely and not add more stress to them.

Step 2: Enquire assertively, with empathy and carefully

You will notice once the employee feels comfortable and willing to share information with you about the source of their stress.

Avoid pressuring the employee to reveal more information, remember that mental health is a sensitive topic and not everyone feels comfortable when talking about it.

Even more so is to fully display your mental health issues at work being afraid of getting fired or dismissed because of it.put yourself into the employee’s shoes and think about the best approach.

Step 3: carry out a risk assessment

After inquiring about the employee’s potential stressors and having a clearer picture about their situation, carry out a stress risk assessment which can help you identify the stressors and make reasonable adjustments to make sure your employee can return to work and feel comfortable at it.

Step 4: Action plan

Here you need to outline the steps you will take to mitigate or alleviate the effect of the previously identified stressors.

Step 5: No need for excessive contact with the employee while off sick

Here, there is no need to contact the employee every single day but also avoid having long periods without making any contact because employees can feel forgotten.

Excessive communication can even increase employee’s stress.

Get into an agreement with the employer or set up a communication plan and make sure to follow through.

Step 6: plan a meeting when the employee has returned

When an employee returns to work after being off sick, it can be experienced with a lot of stress.

Make sure you are welcoming them warmly and update them on any possible changes that may have occurred within the company while they were away.

Moreover, review with them the adjustments you have identified needed to be done and how you will put them in place so they can feel supported, valued, and heard.

Step 7: arrange to check-in with the employee

Make sure to follow up on the employee after a few weeks to make sure all the measurements you have put in place are working and to make sure the employee is as comfortable and happy as they can be at their workplace.

This will also send the message that the employer cares about their employee’s overall health and does everything possible to keep them safe, healthy, and happy.

Refusal to meet you

Let’s imagine the opposite scenario where the employee has refused to meet you or talk to you.

They could be scared about being in trouble or getting fired so make sure to reassure the purpose of the meeting, which is to gain a better understanding of the reasons why they were absent so you can support them when they are back.

If they still refuse, consider letting another member of the management team approach them or talk to them, they may feel more comfortable.

As indicated by Kate L., “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 can I do as an employer?

As we have discussed, you have the ability and power to do reasonable adjustments to the workplace aiming to alleviate workplace stress.

These adjustments will depend on the employee’s specific condition or disability but some of them can be (

  • Schedule changes or reducing hours (flexibility)
  • Changing or reducing the tasks related to the job 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.

What can I do if the employee goes sick with stress again?

If you have done everything possible, every reasonable adjustment and the employee still goes off sick due to the work-related stress, it can bring into question their ability to remain in their role and be employed by you.

As soon as it is possible, arrange a sickness absence review to discuss with your employee why they haven’t been able to successfully return to work.

In addition, consider and discuss the probability of a job role change.

Sometimes you may face how no reasonable adjustments can be done and it may be necessary to terminate an employee’s contract on health grounds. 

If an employee is unwell or too ill to go to work, their GP may issue a fit note to allow them to take some time off work until they recover.

When the employee receives the fit note, they may be entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) or the sick pay from your occupational scheme.

“SSP is the statutory amount you must pay when an employee is too ill to work. They would need to meet certain criteria to qualify for this pay including being off work for four or more days in a row.”

As we have mentioned, stress can be very harmful to an employee’s physical and mental health but it can also impact their behavior.

According to Stefan Jagielski from, this may include:

  • Staff performance and productivity
  • Presenteeism and absenteeism levels
  • Retention and turnover rates
  • Employment tribunal claims
  • Consumer satisfaction
  • Brand reputation

As an employer, some of the best options to manage the effect of stress in the employees are investing in wellness programs or employee assistance programs. 

How to handle an employee when they are off sick due to work-related stress can be a sensitive topic to talk about. 

More importantly, it is necessary to consider the best approach when interacting with the employee and how to get valuable information regarding their mental health, but remember there is always a possibility they can refuse to.

Mitigating and preventing work-related stress is the employers responsibility, so make sure to implement all the necessary steps to identify and make reasonable adjustments for the employer to have a safe and healthy work environment.

Please feel free to leave any comments or thoughts about the content of this article!

Can I be sacked for being off sick with work-related stress?

You can be sacked for being off sick with work-related stress.

Your employer is not obliged to keep your job position open.

However, employers usually follow a procedure or fair process before dismissing an employee.

Can I take time off work due to stress?

You can take time off work due to stress.

If your stress levels are too overwhelming you can set an appointment to see your GP to get a fit note to get time off work due to stress.

Even though stress is not considered an illness, it is important to pay attention to it since it can actually contribute to developing medical conditions or even affect your mental health.

What to do when an employee says they are stressed?

If an employee says they are stressed, it is important to enquire why they are feeling stress.

It could be related to personal reasons or due to their work.

Personal issues can’t really be handled by employers but they can be understanding and supportive but if it is work-related stress there are several adjustments and modifications you can make as an employer to help your employees deal with stress.

How can employers help employees deal with stress?

Employers can help employees deal with stress by making sure they have a balance in their workload, allowing flexi-time and remote working, recognizing the employee’s value, implementing wellness programs, encouraging employees to stay active, etc.

Do you get full pay if off with stress?

According to the employment law, if you are signed off with stress being too ill to go to work, you are entitled to Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) for up to 7 months.

In addition, employers may even pay more than the SSP if they have their own sick pay scheme policies.


L, K. (2019, Apr.) How to handle an employee off with work-related stress. Retrieved from

Jagielski, S. (2020, Mar.) How to handle an employee off with work-related stress. Retrieved from