FMLA For Stress & Mental Health Concerns

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 10, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Sometimes, the demands from anxiety, depression, stress, or other mental health and physical health conditions can make work an overwhelming place. However, you don't necessarily have to give up and walk away from your job if you're having a difficult time coping. There are options for employees to take leave for mental health conditions, allowing employees a certain amount of time to care for their mental or emotional health. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is designed to allow employees unpaid time off work to care for their physical or mental health, as well as that of their families. Below, we’ll look at the guidelines of FMLA and other options for employees needing time off for stress and mental health concerns.

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What is FMLA?

FMLA is a law that gives 12 weeks of paid or unpaid leave from work each year to employees who need to care for themselves or a family member with a serious health condition. Although you may not receive a paycheck for the time you are away and may have to pay health insurance premiums out-of-pocket, the federal law ensures your employer will keep your job until you return when on mental health leave. This means you cannot be fired or laid off or have your position taken away from you because of your absence. If, for some reason, the same job is not available at the end of the FMLA period, your employer must find you one within the company. Situations in which the FMLA may apply include:

  • The birth of a new baby (time also may be used for pregnancy-related complications)
  • Adoption or foster care placement of a child who will live with the employee
  • Care for serious personal illness or health condition 

A serious health condition is one that renders someone incapable of working, going to school, or performing other major life activities. In some cases, it may require ongoing medical treatment. Routine examinations, treatment for illness (unless it meets the criteria above), and cosmetic procedures do not usually qualify. Complications from a chronic condition, acute illness, or an intensive procedure may be eligible for FMLA if they cause an employee to be unable to work and the employee has a regularly scheduled appointment with their healthcare provider.

FMLA availability

There are a few qualifying factors that make someone eligible for family leave. Employees must:

  • Have worked at their place of employment for 12+ months (not necessarily consecutively)
  • Have accrued 1,250 hours of work in the past year
  • Work for a company that has more than 50 employees within 75 miles of your place of work

In addition, employees of non-public employers can use FMLA leave if the company employed 50 or more employees in 20 or more workweeks in the current or preceding calendar year. However, FMLA doesn't cover everyone. New employees, part-time or temporary staff, and workers in companies not considered covered employers are usually excluded. In some cases, there are other options available for those who need time away, such as state medical and family leave laws for employers and employees. 

FMLA for stress

In some cases, FMLA can cover stress, stress-related conditions, and other mental health challenges. FMLA may help those going through extreme stress or mental illness if their symptoms affect their ability to function or their daily mental health. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), employees qualify for FMLA if they or a family experience a serious physical or mental health condition. The department defines a serious medical condition as one that requires either inpatient care or ongoing medical treatment. For example, needing to attend a family counseling session for a family member in an inpatient treatment program at a residential medical care facility may qualify under the FMLA. If a family member requires hospitalization for an eating disorder, that may also qualify. Other mental health conditions that may qualify under the FMLA include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and severe anxiety disorders.

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Per the Department of Labor, conditions that require continuing treatment can include:

  • “Conditions that incapacitate an individual for more than three consecutive days and require ongoing medical treatment, either multiple appointments with a health care provider, including a psychiatrist, clinical psychologist, or clinical social worker, or a single appointment and follow-up care (e.g., prescription medication, outpatient rehabilitation counseling, or behavioral therapy); and
  • Chronic conditions (e.g., anxiety, depression, or dissociative disorders) that cause occasional periods when an individual is incapacitated and require treatment by a health care provider at least twice a year.”

Support for military families under FMLA

The FMLA extends its support to families of servicemembers, including those on active duty, through the provision of military caregiver leave. This type of leave allows eligible employees up to 26 work weeks of leave in a single 12-month period, specifically to care for a covered servicemember or veteran who has suffered a serious injury or illness. Eligibility for this leave is broad and may include the servicemember's spouse, son, daughter, or parent. For example, if an employee’s spouse was injured during military service overseas, they could apply for FMLA military caregiver leave to provide care.

Support for an adult child with a mental health condition

When a serious mental health condition affects an employee’s adult child, the FMLA provides a safety net. It acknowledges the challenges faced by parents of children over 18 who, due to serious mental health conditions, are unable to care for themselves. The FMLA extends its provisions to cover such scenarios, using the definitions provided by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) regulations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This means that conditions like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia are recognized as disabilities that can greatly restrict major life activities, thus qualifying for FMLA leave.

FMLA application process

The U.S. Department of Labor provides all the information you need to request FMLA here. In most cases, you simply need to make your employer aware that you have a qualifying situation, and your human resources department will likely walk you through any paperwork or procedures they require for a formal request. If you believe that you’re unable to work due to stress-related conditions or a serious mental health condition, consider making an appointment with your doctor or a mental health care provider to discuss your options for this condition before applying through FMLA. 

For planned leaves that will be covered by FMLA, it may help to let your employer know 30 days in advance if possible. For unplanned leave, you can alert your employer as soon as you can. However, you may want to give them enough information about the situation to show them it qualifies for FMLA.

Once you submit a request, your human resources department will likely look at the details, ask clarifying questions, and use any additional information you offer about your mental health issues to approve or deny your leave through FMLA. Your employer has five days from your initial request to decide. If your request is denied, the employer must provide at least one reason why.

Your employer may want proof of any physical or mental health conditions to understand the medical reasons behind the leave with FMLA. This is called medical certification, and it must include the following information:

  • The date the condition started and made you unable to work 
  • The expected duration of the condition
  • Facts about the condition, which may include doctor’s visits, symptoms, hospitalization, and referrals)
  • Whether the request is for continuous or intermittent leave

However, you might want to avoid providing more information than what is requested and sending sensitive details to co-workers, direct supervisors, or your management team when applying for health benefits or FMLA. 

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Alternatives to FMLA leave for mental health 

If you do not qualify for FMLA for stress or mental health problems, either because you do not meet the requirements or do not work with a company that offers the benefit, there are other options you can explore.

ADA accommodations for mental health

The ADA is a law that supports every worker, no matter how long they have been in their position or their full-time status. It allows workers to request reasonable accommodations that make doing their job easier if they have a disability. The ADA may cover stress and mental illness if something about the work environment or amount of stress prevents the employee from doing their job well. There are usually no strict medical requirements as there are with FMLA, but you may need a note from your doctor to get approval for any accommodations you need.
Typically, an ADA claim will not allow you to take time away from work due to stress-related conditions. The purpose of it is to give you what you need to do your job well on-site. However, you may be able to request extended lunches or breaks or a change in your work environment or schedule. For many, this can be just as helpful as taking time away from work. However, if your request requires you to be away from your job, for example, to attend visits with a therapist, you will likely have to use options like your vacation time to cover your absence.

If you don't qualify for FMLA or ADA, consider taking leave. This option is like FMLA in that you can take unpaid time away from work, but it doesn't usually come with the benefits that FMLA offers. Unprotected leave is a risk because you may be terminated at any time you are away. However, if there is no other option for a stress leave at work, negotiating terms of leave with your employer is likely better than continuing to experience harm to your mental health. If you want to know more about your case at a specific company, an attorney or court services can likely help you better understand your rights.

Short-term disability

Your employer may offer short-term disability. This benefit typically allows you to continue receiving a percentage of your income while you recover from a disability. Some companies may not allow short-term disability for an employee’s mental health condition or behavioral health concerns. If your company does allow this, it’s recommended that you read your policy carefully. There may be certain requirements you must meet or diagnoses you must prove with employee medical records to take advantage of the benefits. 

There are some instances where FMLA allows eligible employees to also benefit from short-term disability. If short-term disability isn't a possibility for you, you might check the details of some of the other benefits you are paying to see if you might be covered elsewhere.

Employee assistance programs

If stress or a mental health condition, like major depressive disorder, is affecting you at work, you might consider checking your employee handbook to explore your assistance options. Some companies offer programs geared toward improving the mental health of their workers, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). An EAP may help workers receive free mental health counseling to address personal problems happening at home or work. Some EAPs offer group classes in yoga, meditation, or resiliency or host workshops to improve overall well-being. 

Vacation

If you need time away from the office and aren't comfortable talking about your physical or mental health details with those you work with, consider using your vacation time to recharge. A paid vacation can allow you to keep earning money while taking some important self-care time for you. Many companies allow employees to use vacation time for those who are experiencing hardship or health concerns. You may be able to ask for additional hours through an assistance program.

If you want to use your vacation time as a stress leave at work, it may help to remember that you don’t have to go anywhere. Stress can negatively affect your body, and sometimes, just changing your routine and making time to relax can help.

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Help through online therapy

If your options for taking time away from work are limited, there are other options available. For many, talk therapy can be an effective source of stress relief. Consider reaching out to a licensed mental health counselor in your community. If you don’t feel comfortable going to a therapist’s office, you might try online therapy, which numerous studies have shown to be just as effective as in-office therapy. An online counselor may be able to help you work through difficult emotions, change how you think about challenges in your life and skillfully manage stress and other mental health concerns like major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bipolar disorder.

Takeaway

If you’re experiencing stress or other mental health challenges, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) may allow you to take unpaid time away from work to address your mental health. It can be challenging to perform your best when you're experiencing extreme stress or other mental health conditions. If you don’t meet the requirements to get FMLA, other options may be available, including help through an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or online therapy. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping people with stress or other specific challenges you’re facing. Take the first step toward stress reduction and reach out to BetterHelp today.
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