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Is mental health a valid excuse to miss work?

Updated: May 11

This month is mental health awareness week from 13th to 19th May, and one question we get asked a lot at The HR Hero...

Is mental health a valid excuse to miss work?

Let's explore this in more detail, and put this question into context. According to the HSE (Health and Safety Executive):

‘One in four people in the UK will have a mental health problem at some point. Anxiety and depression are the most common mental health problems’


Mental health can be a valid reason to miss work, just as physical health issues are. It's important to recognise that mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, or burnout, can significantly impact an individual's ability to perform their job duties and overall wellbeing.


This month is mental health awareness week from 13th – 19th May, and I often get asked what to do when a member of the team is off work with mental health issues.  The strategies employers put in place to manage mental health in the workplace, has a huge impact on fostering a positive and productive workplace culture.


If an employee is experiencing mental health challenges that affect their ability to work, they may need to take time off to seek professional help, rest, or recuperate. In many countries, including the UK, mental health issues are recognized as valid reasons for absence under employment law, and employees can obtain a medical certificate from their healthcare provider to support their need for time off.


It is crucial for employers to create a supportive work environment where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health concerns and seeking help when needed. Employers should also have clear policies and procedures in place to handle such situations, ensuring that employees are treated fairly and with empathy. According to Mind:

'More than one in five staff members have called in sick to avoid work when asked how workplace stress has affected them'


Mental health problems are common and your staff mental health could be triggered by work and unrelated work events, for example work related stress, becoming a carer, retirement, relationship breakdown, bereavement, financial pressures, social isolation and long term health conditions.  Don’t forget that events that appear positive in someone’s life can also be stressful too, such as getting married, moving house, and the birth of a child.

The common mental health conditions in the workplace are anxiety and depression. Stress is not a mental health condition however stress can affect our mental health.  Let’s look at stress in more detail.

What is stress?

Employees feel stress when they can’t cope with pressures and other issues.  A huge challenge is that stress does not apply equally to everyone.  What stresses one person might not affect another.  Different levels of skills and experience, age and personal characteristics all affect people’s ability to cope in particular situations.  

Pressure can be a good thing, it can motivate people, however when pressure gets too much it can manifest into stress. 

HSE define stress as:

‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’.

ACAS also explain that:

'stress is a common mental health issue, it may not be classed as a medical condition but it can still have a serious impact on wellbeing and it’s important that employers take mental health issues seriously.'

Did you know that all employers have a statutory duty to protect their staff?

For example, taking all reasonable steps, sometimes with the benefit of risk assessments, to make sure that your people:

  • have a safe place and safe system of work;

  • can take appropriate breaks;

  • are not put under excessive working pressures;

  • are not subjected to discrimination or harassment at work.

As an employer, you should aim to identify, minimise the effects of, and wherever possible remove hazards that could harm employees wellbeing.

As a manager or leader, it’s good practice to look out for the signs of stress in both individuals and teams.  Early recognition of stress can prevent issues from escalating and affecting poor mental heath.  HSE explain the types of signs to look out for in both teams and individuals that could alert you to signs of stress:

Employee - changes in the way someone acts or behaves, for example:

  • takes more time off work

  • arrives for work later

  • more twitchy or nervous

  • mood swings

  • being withdrawn

  • loss of motivation

  • commitment and confidence

  • increased emotional reactions

  • being more tearful, sensitive or aggressive  


  • arguments

  • higher staff turnover

  • more reports of stress

  • more sickness absence

  • decreased performance

  • more complaints and grievances   

Managers should look out for signs of stress in teams and employees and think about whether the stress could be linked to work pressure.  Employers must assess the risks of work-related stress in their workplace and take action to protect employees. 

Acting early can reduce the impact of pressure and make it easier to reduce or remove the causes. It’s about noticing differences in the way people act and behave.  If there is something wrong at work and this has caused the problem, managers should take action. 

Supporting employees and boosting wellbeing

It is not a legal requirement to manage absence, however, effectively managing absence will

support the health needs of your people.   All businesses should be considering staff wellbeing, this could be from just starting to consider wellbeing and mental health support, including minimising stress and risk in the HR strategy, to a well developed strategic approach to managing employee wellbeing. 


Whatever approach organisations take, it is crucial for managers to recognise the signs of stress and how to support employees to maintain and boost their wellbeing, ensuring any investment is appropriate to the issues that are relevant to the organisation and their people.

The most important factor is open two-way communication.  Employees need to know there is someone in the organisation that they can talk to. Managers need to give employees the time and forum for open and honest dialogue.  How managers approach and handle these conversations are crucial to employee wellbeing.  

Managers need to be confident in bringing up the subject of stress, approachable, transparent, understanding and pro-active to tackle issues before they become huge problems.  Not all managers have these skills and understand the symptoms of stress; this can be a particular issue where the entire team is under pressure at a certain time.  Employee’s stress can also be bought on by personal problems; reasonable employers are prepared to look at ways of alleviating pressure at work so as not to make matters worse.


Consequences of not managing stress

If stress is not managed in the workplace it will have an impact on employee absence, reduce performance and productivity.  Stress has personal and commercial consequences, which can lead to illness like depression and anxiety and physical impairments such as musculoskeletal and heart problems.


Kate Bennett is the owner of The HR Hero, from their office in Bromsgrove, they provide HR, people management and training support to organisations across Worcestershire and the UK, who have between 1 and 100 employees.



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