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Don’t automatically grant FMLA leave for stress

by on
in FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Employees often claim their jobs stress them out. And for some, it’s so bad they feel they need to take off work for a week or so to cope.

That doesn’t mean, however, that employees are automatically entitled to use FMLA leave. Even if they get a doctor to write a note “prescribing” rest, they don’t qualify for FMLA leave unless there’s some additional treatment ordered, such as medication or counseling.

Recent case: E. Lee worked as a counselor and unit supervisor for Heritage Health & Housing, a company that provides housing for people with special needs.

When she was assigned additional beds to supervise, Lee claimed she was too stressed out to handle the new responsibility. She asked for a week off to deal with the stress and went to her doctor. He told her to take the time off to rest, but didn’t prescribe any medication for her stress. Nor did he recommend counseling or other treatment.

Heritage fired Lee after she returned from leave, saying it discovered during the leave that she hadn’t been doing her job correctly.

Lee sued, claiming her stress was a qualifying “serious health condition” under the FMLA, thus requiring she be granted reinstatement to the same or a similar position when returning from leave.

The court disagreed. It said Lee wasn’t eligible for FMLA leave because her stress problem did not, in fact, rise to the level of a serious health condition. She saw her doctor only once and he didn’t prescribe anything except time off. (Lee v. Heritage Health & Housing, No. 07-CIV-10628, SD NY, 2009)

Final note: Chances are, Lee would have lost the case even if she had been eligible for FMLA leave. Her employer discovered she hadn’t been doing her job, which probably would be a legitimate reason for not reinstating her.

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