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When an employee claims stress or burnout

Updated: Jan 17

As an employer you have a responsibility to ensure that your workplace provides a safe and healthy work environment for your employees. There may come a time when an employee takes long periods of sick leave, either in a continuous block or in intervals but over a period of time - say three to six months. Or maybe your employee is claiming they are stressed or feeling burnt-out.

As a reasonable and responsible employer, you should not ignore these signs as to do so could cost you in the long run. When an employee is taking a lot of leave, if all they are telling you is they are sick and just provide "unfit for work" medical's, you need to take steps to enquire into what is happening with the employee and what about their current health is preventing them from performing the work for which they were employed. You should also enquire as to whether there is something about their work that may be contributing to their poor health.

In a December 2023 Employment Authority (ERA) hearing, an employer was found to have not engaged with an employee about his health issues, which were identified as early as July 2021. The ERA found that the employee was let down by the failure of the employer to properly address his safety and wellbeing at work and that this led to his resignation on 21 October 2021. Although the evidence provided by the employer demonstrated the employee's communications were arguably combative and demanding from that point, the cause of the grievance the employee raised was attributed to the employer's failure to understand and address the mental health issues raised by the employee prior to their grievance. While there were other factors involved in this case, the ERA found in favour of the employee and awarded, among other things, three months loss of wages and $25,000 for hurt and humiliation.

While enquiring into an employee's health is a sensitive and sometimes fraught process, this case demonstrates the importance of the employer taking an active and timely approach to making appropriate enquiries. If an employee chooses not to engage with such an enquiry that is designed to help the employer understand what is going on so they can take appropriate steps to assist their employee, then the employer has at least done what is expected of them and can make decisions on what information they do have. More importantly though is that in most cases the employee will participate, and this gives the employer good medical advice on what is going on for the employee, what the prognosis is looking like, and also what reasonable and practicable steps the employer can take to assist the employee.

In cases of stress or burnout, taking a constructive approach to finding out what is behind the stress or burnout will help both parties understand what they can do to address the stress or burnout and help get the employee back into full participation in the workplace, whatever that may need to look like.

To help you understand how to approach requesting medical information, review our 2019 blog on Managing Sick Leave.

McKone Consultancy can assist you if you have a situation at work where you need to seek professional medical advice, so you know how to assist an employee return to work. Contact us today.

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