Your Mental Health and Stress Leave in Ontario

While you may be used to work-related stress, being in a constant state of stress or anxiety is known to contribute to the development of several physical and mental illnesses, like high blood pressure, heart conditions, stomach ulcers, anxiety, depression and others. 

Even if you are attentive to your physical and mental health, you may be experiencing the effects of heightened stress levels without knowing it. There are many symptoms of stress that present themselves in various ways, and some aren’t obvious.  

Knowing what those symptoms are and what your rights are if you need to take a stress leave from work is crucial in managing and treating them.

Recognizing Unhealthy Levels of Stress

Over half of Canadians polled about their mental health said that it had worsened over the two years of mass lockdowns, layoffs, social distancing, travel bans, etc., caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The worst may be behind us, but that amount of stress over a prolonged period of time can have a lasting effect on the brain’s ability to handle future stress and recover from increased anxiety.

Even if you don’t feel any differently, recognizing the warning signs of unhealthy stress levels can save you from a potentially fatal or debilitating health condition. Indications come in many forms of physical, mental, behavioural and emotional signs, such as:

  • Dry mouth and increased heart rate
  • Stiffness or pain, especially in the neck, shoulders and lower back
  • Frequent illnesses or the worsening of existing conditions
  • Chest pain, headaches, stomach ailments, nausea
  • Trembling, sweating, nervousness, anxiousness
  • Fatigue and changes in your sleeping habits
  • Changes in eating habits and/or weight gain or loss
  • Increased smoking, drinking, drug use
  • Aggressive behaviour, including yelling and cursing
  • Irritability, anger, impatience
  • Avoidance or procrastination
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and decision-making 
  • Loss of joy or sense of humour, depression
  • Decreased libido

If you are constantly experiencing symptoms of stress or it takes a long time for them to pass after they’ve started, speak to your doctor as soon as you can, especially if you’re feeling physical symptoms like chest pain or stomach issues. These symptoms can indicate or result in serious health conditions.

Your healthcare provider may prescribe wellness exercises, refer you for treatment and/or recommend that you take stress leave from your work.

Taking Stress Leave in Ontario

To be clear, your healthcare provider does not have to sign off on your taking stress leave from work. However, in circumstances when it’s reasonable for them to do so, your employer can ask that you provide a medical note if you take a sick or stress leave. Reasonable circumstances can include requesting more time off than you’re allowed or regularly being absent from work. 

Legally, there isn’t a specific leave for stress in Ontario, and taking stress leave is considered part of your sick leave entitlement. These are some of your other rights regarding sick leave in Ontario:

  • You’re entitled to a minimum of three unpaid days of sick leave per calendar year if you’ve worked with your current employer for at least two consecutive weeks, unless you work in a federally-regulated industry, in which case you’re provided a minimum of five days of sick or “personal leave” in a calendar year – three of which are paid if you’ve been with your employer for at least three consecutive months. 
  • Your employment contract may provide a longer sick or stress leave, possibly with paid time off. If so, those terms become the minimums you’re entitled to. 
  • It’s against the law for your employer to punish you in any way for asking about, planning or taking sick/stress leave.
  • You’re entitled to the same or a comparable position when you return from a legally-mandated leave, including leaves that are provided in your employment contract.

If you do take sick leave, you’re required to notify your employer, preferably before you go on leave. If you’re unable to, you must notify them as soon as you can.

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