If you’ve been signed off work due to stress, your mental health will be in a fragile state. This is doubly so if your stress is work related. If your work is contacting you during this time, it can feel intrusive and create additional pressures on your health.
If you’ve been getting phone calls from work with no warning, or are being contacted in ways you feel uncomfortable with, you need to know what is acceptable and how you can set some boundaries.
There’s no law to prevent an employer contacting a worker who is off work ill with stress. Many workplaces will be genuinely concerned for the welfare of a sick worker. Employers will also have a duty of care to the employee if the illness is work related.
Contact Should be Agreed & Reasonable
However, any contact from your employer must be reasonable. Excessive calls or emails may aggravate mental health issues.
If your employer engaged in excessive and unnecessary contact which made stress or depression worse, it might mean you could claim constructive dismissal.
ACAS guidelines about contact with an employee suffering poor mental health say,
“An employer should keep in regular contact with an employee who is off sick because of a mental health problem. Employees often benefit from keeping in touch. However, employers should make sure their employee agrees to the contact and that it’s not overwhelming.”
Source: ACAS – Keeping in touch during absence.
Work Related Stress, Depression & Anxiety is on the Rise
Looking after our mental wellbeing is as just as important as dealing with any physical illnesses. Mental health conditions directly related to the workplace are on a worrying uptrend.
Workplace Mental Health Statistics
An estimated 914,000 employees were affected by work related stress, anxiety or depression during 21 / 22. This is an increase of 11.19% since 2020 / 21 when 822,000 workers reported mental health problems at work.Source: HSE Work-related stress, anxiety or depression statistics in Great Britain, 2022
Contact and Work Related Stress
If your stress or depression is partly or fully due to problems in the workplace then it is the responsibility of the employer to take steps to address the situation. This means they will have to be in contact with you.
Welfare checks may also be made, so that your workplace can check in on your mental health. Employers have a duty of care to support their staff and make reasonable adjustments to assist a return to work.
They may ask to check in with you from time to time, either over the phone or face to face. Your employer may also request you attend a welfare meeting at work – these are intended to provide support. If you are asked to attend, don’t let it concern you. They are not intended as disciplinary meetings.
How Contact When Off Sick Can Make Stress Worse
When an employee has a sick note for stress after being deemed unfit for work by a GP, contacting them can aggravate their stress despite good intentions.
It is so important to tread carefully in situations where mental illness is involved. Each situation should be assessed on its own set of circumstances.
Employers should consider:-
- What is the cause of the stress or depression? Has the employee got things going on in their personal life or is some of the illness down to the work environment?
- Does the call need to be made right now or can it wait a little longer? Sometimes, especially in smaller businesses, staff are heavily relied on for a source of information. Only make the call if it is necessary.
- Make sure duty of care obligations are met without putting the staff member under any additional pressures.
- Consider the least intrusive form of contact wiht employees while off sick. Sometimes an email might be best. The worker may want time to consider a reply and it will be less stressful than a phone call.
- Others might appreciate their boss reaching out at a time when they might feel lonely. It’s about assessing each situation as it arises and it is also about knowing your staff. In big businesses, sometimes the manager may not even have met the staff member. It might be more appropriate for someone familiar to reach out.
What Contact is Reasonable When Off Sick with Stress?
Employers do have the right to check in from time to time. The frequency of contact should be agreed upon between you both.
There are no laws about frequency of contact. However, it should be reasonable and they should be mindful about the impact on your mental health. If the level of contact affects your recovery, it may cause you more time off work.
When you are first off work sick, there may be practical issues to consider. These can include finding a temp to cover the absence or increasing the workload of other employees.
HR or payroll may need information from you such as sick pay forms. Being signed off work with stress requires a fit note when the absence is for longer than 7 days.
Types of contact an employer may adopt include:
- Emails (perhaps where stress is bad and entirely work related).
- Telephone calls.
- Semi regular face to face meetings.
- Return to work interview.
- Employers often want to find out what reasonable adjustments can be made.
- Welfare checks may involve some filling in of forms.
Bear in mind the importance of staying in touch with work while ill. It may be the last thing you feel like doing but try to engage. Making yourself unavailable and not responding to calls might make things worse.
Some employers will take disciplinary action when sickness procedures aren’t followed. However, in some cases inappropriate levels of contact could be considered as harassment while on sick leave. Tribunal cases for constructive dismissal have been raised on grounds of this behaviour in the past.
If You Are Struggling – Speak to Your Employer
If you are struggling with the level of contact or contact methods being adopted by your employer, speak with them.
You can discuss how often you feel comfortable being contacted, and agree the best method of communication to support your recovery. It may be that your employer has not realised the impact of their attempts to stay in touch.
Stress at Work & Employer Duty of Care
Employers must make sure they comply with UK health and safety legislation and this includes managing stress in the workplace.
Stress in the work environment should be treated like any other risk to employee health. Strategies should be in place to prevent it from happening in the first place. Support should always be readily available for staff, particularly the case in stressful environments.
If an employee has become ill with stress or depression then an employer must take appropriate steps to support them. They should not feel alienated from the workplace and their colleagues. At the same ttime, the employee should not be pressured to return before ready.
Related: Employers duty of care for mental health.
What if the Stress is Work Related? Your Rights
If your stress is work related then you have additional rights and protections. This is why the employer must be able to demonstrate they’ve fulfiled their duty of care.
You may have right to make a claim for work related stress at an employment tribunal. These are made when your illness has come about as a direct result of the conditions in the workplace.
Employees may also have a case for constructive dismissal if they feel they have no alternative but to leave their job.
Common Reasons For Stress In The Workplace
There are a lot of reasons which can lead to taking time off work due to stress. But a lot of the time it comes down to the work environment itself.
Stress in the workplace is often caused by:-
- Increased workloads.
- Increased work hours (if employees opted out of the working hours regulations).
- Unhealthy work environment.
- Bullying at work.
- Staff feeling isolated or not included.
- Bereavement of a colleague.
- Lack of support.
- Changes within the organisation.
- We look at concerns about if an employee can be sacked for being off work with depression or stress. Our guide gives an overview of fair dismissal processes employers need to follow, as well as legal protections against unfair dismissal.
- How to get signed off work with stress – this guide looks at the process of self certification for mental health. It also examines when you need to see your GP and how fit notes can be obtained.
You can self certify for the first 7 days of any illness, including stress. After this point, a doctor’s note is required which your workplace will ask for. You will normally require an appointment with the doctor to receive this.