How to Take an Effective Stress Leave from Work

Longer than a vacation and less risky than quitting, this type of time off could help burned out employees.
Insight Timer is the top free meditation app on iOS and Android.
Insight Timer is the top free meditation app on iOS and Android.

A 2017 survey by the American Psychological Association found 64% of those in the US listed money as their top cause of stress, while another 60% placed work in the primary stress-inducing spot. Of course, the two are related. When you’re stressed at work, concerns about money or losing your job can often keep you in an overwhelming situation. 

Consistent, long-term exposure to work-related stress can lead to burnout if we fail to address it. When the physical or emotional symptoms of stress interfere with our performance in the office, it may be time to take a leave of absence. 

Requesting medical leave isn’t easy but can make a significant difference in our ability to cope with stressors when we return to the daily grind. Learn more about stress leave, and how to best use your time if you take it.

What is Stress Leave?

Stress leave is a medical leave of absence that allows employees time off to address symptoms of stress. Whether or not your company offers stress leave depends on federal and state regulation, the size of the company you work for, and the policies of your Human Resources department. Even when available, stress leave is often unpaid.

Stress leave in the United States is regulated by the Family and Medical Leave Act, FMLA. Under this law, employees can ask for a leave of absence for up to 12 weeks to care for a family member, or for themselves. After your leave, your employer is obligated to return you to the same position, or an equivalent position with equivalent benefits.

Do You Qualify for Stress Leave?

To qualify for stress leave under FMLA, you’ll have to demonstrate the following: 

  1. Your stress is the result of a serious health condition
  2. Your stress renders you unable to complete the requirements of your job

To satisfy the above conditions, you should be under the care of a mental health professional who can confirm your stress, anxiety or depression, and its negative influence on your work and personal life.

What to Do While on Stress Leave

To make the most of your stress leave, you’ll want to spend your time away from the office addressing the impact of stress on your central nervous system, and learning new coping tools to help prevent a recurrence when you return to work:

1. See a Professional

To qualify for stress leave, you’ll likely have to see a doctor or mental health specialist. Under FMLA, your employer has the right to require that a health care provider certify your condition.

Individual or group therapy sessions with a psychologist or trained counselor can help relieve the symptoms of stress and teach you to better cope with future stress. A professional can also address any physical or emotional issues that have arisen due to prolonged stress.

2. Practice Self-Care

If you’ve taken a leave of absence, you’re already practicing self-care by removing yourself from the source of your stress. During this leave of absence, continued self-care practices should address the effects of stress, so your central nervous system can return to neutral. What these practices look like will be different for everyone, but at minimum, they should include sleeping well, eating well and exercising

The best self-care is that which will set you up for a different, more effective stress response upon your return to work. Seeing a professional, practicing meditation, and learning to set boundaries are all part of effective self-care. 

3. Meditate

Stressful work situations can interfere with even our best-laid plans for meditation. Stress leave is an excellent time to return to this daily practice. Meditation helps mitigate stress by regulating the central nervous system, improving emotional awareness, helping us detach from outcomes, and generally strengthening resilience.

Developing greater awareness of our thoughts and understanding they don’t define us, helps us stop stress before it begins. Even listening to meditative music can help to return the body to a state of calm.

4. Plan Your Reintegration

A successful stress leave will include planning for your eventual return to work. Maintain consistent communication with your supervisor and HR department. This may include speaking up about putting boundaries in place to help you maintain your calm.

Once back in the office, implement the coping skills you’ve learned during your time off. Practice patience and mindful self-compassion if your stress returns. Recovery can be imperfect and it will take time. Stressful moments are often unavoidable, but with mindfulness, they will no longer build and accumulate.

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