Ask Kate: my employee's been signed off work with stress. Help!

  • Occupational Health
Person working on laptop looking stressed
Kate Palmer FCIPD - Director of HR Advice and Consultancy at global employment law consultancy, Peninsula.

Kate Palmer, HR Advice and Consultancy Director

(Last updated )

Whenever a staff issue comes up, Peninsula advisers are on hand to help. There’s no query too big, too small, or too bizarre for our experts to unpack.

So, if you’re sitting on a query, don’t hesitate to ask. It’s what keeps our Peninsula clients safe and successful all year-round and gives them the peace of mind to focus on their business.

This caller’s employee is off work with stress. So, they asked Kate Palmer, Peninsula’s HR Advice and Consultancy Director, for advice…

Here’s what they had to say…

Hi Kate

My employee’s GP has signed them off work because of stress. They’ve been off for three days now. I’m concerned because I don’t want any of my staff feeling overwhelmed at work, but I’m not sure if work is actually the root cause. I don’t want to pry or dig into their personal matters, but I need to know how I can help them. At the minute, I have no idea when they’re coming back into the office, and I don’t know how often I need to be in contact with them. Help!


Kate’s reply was…

Hi Anon,

It sounds like you’re in a really difficult position. While of course, you want to support your employee, you also need to support your business.

Fortunately, by following HR processes, you can achieve both of those things without putting yourself at risk.

“I don’t know how often I need to be in contact with them”

To put your mind at ease, there’s no legal issue with contacting your employee while they’re off work. In fact, you should keep checking in with them.

This doesn’t mean you have to contact them multiple times a day without warning, as this could overwhelm them. But you should decide with your employee how regularly you should be in contact, depending on their specific circumstances.

You should also decide how you’re going to contact them i.e. via phone or email. You should also decide on who the employee’s contact should be. It might be their line manager or a HR manager.

“I don’t want to pry or dig into their personal matters, but I need to know how I can help them”

While your employee has a right to take time off for stress and ill-health, it’s up to you to investigate why they’re absent, and any factors in your workplace that might be contributing to the stress.

I completely understand why you would be hesitant to reach out. Your employee might be dealing with something that’s very sensitive or personal to them. But, you don’t need to delve into what they’re actually dealing with, unless it’s work-related. If your employee’s off work because of a personal or mental health issue, that kind of support is better left to the experts. If you have an employee assistance programme (EAP), make sure you’ve directed them to it.

When you do reach out, try not to put any pressure on your employee to talk about what they’re experiencing. Let them share as much as they’re comfortable with sharing. It’s not easy to talk about mental health and your employee might worry their job is at risk because of it.

So, make that one less worry for them. Find out how to support their recovery and help them return to work.   

If a medical professional has signed off your employee, your employee should provide you with a fit note that says whether they may or may not be fit for work.

If their fit note says they may be fit for work, you have an opportunity to discuss any changes that might help them return. It might be that you need to look into changing or reducing their working hours, allowing them to work from home some days, or changing the responsibilities of their role.

“At the minute, I have no idea when they’re coming back into the office”

If your employee’s fit note says they’re not fit for work, it should also tell you how long they should be off work and whether they’ll be able to come back to work before the fit note expires. If the employee is still not fit for work when the fit note expires, their doctor can issue them a new one if necessary.

You should never put any pressure on your employee to return to work before they’re ready to do so. You also shouldn’t ask them to take on any work-related tasks while they’re off.

And while you may want to know when your employee’s coming back to work, there’s no set amount of time someone can be off with stress. It depends on the nature of their job, the resources you have, and your policies for managing long-term sickness.

It’s also worth noting that if your employee is off work for more than four days and they earn at least the lower earnings limit (which is currently £123), they’re also entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) as a minimum. That’s if you don’t set your own company sick pay. They can get SSP for up to 28 weeks.

“I don’t want any of my staff feeling overwhelmed at work”

If you think that work is overwhelming your staff, it may help to go away and carry out a stress risk assessment. This will help you find any potential stressors in your workplace. Once you can pinpoint the issues, you can take steps to tackle them.

Sometimes, workplace stress can be a sign of a wider issue. If you’re worried about your workers disconnecting, discover HR tips for getting them back on track. 

If staff burnout is common in your line of work or your staff seem to struggle with stress, it might be time to review your workplace. Making changes to someone’s working routine or environment can make a huge difference to their wellbeing.

And if you need more advice on how to do that, please give us a call and we’d be happy to help.

I hope this helps you make that first step towards creating a healthier and happier working relationship for you both.

All the best,


P.S. Got a HR query or staff problem? Call 0800 029 4389 to get advice today.

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