In California, you may be entitled to protected job leave under state or federal law if your workplace stress impairs your ability to perform your job. This form of stress leave is generally unpaid. However, you may be entitled to paid leave under workers’ compensation or temporary disability benefits.
If your employer takes an adverse employment action against you, it can amount to disability discrimination.
Can I get stress leave in California?
In California, if your workplace stress is preventing you from doing your job then you may be eligible for stress leave. This leave may be available under the:
Both of these types of stress leave are unpaid. Additionally, not all workers are eligible to take it. Even if you are eligible, the workplace stress must be severe enough to be a serious health condition. However, the unpaid time off can be used as a supplemental source of leave in addition to your paid sick time. This unpaid leave can help you recover from the stresses of a hostile work environment caused by coworkers or other workplace issues.
Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal labor law. It provides unpaid, but job-protected, leave so you can:
- treat, or recover from, a serious health condition,
- care for an immediate family member who is suffering from a serious health condition,
- bond with a newborn baby or a new adopted or foster child, or
- deal with a qualifying exigency related to the military.1
This leave can last up to 12 weeks in a 12-month period.2
A “serious health condition,” however, is limited to a physical or mental condition that requires:
- inpatient care at a hospital or residential medical care facility, or
- continuing treatment by a health care provider.3
If your stress requires ongoing care, it can satisfy the demands of the FMLA. You may be entitled to FMLA leave. However, you may have to certify your need for stress leave. This requires your healthcare provider’s certification.
The certification requires at least the following information:
- the date the stress began,
- how long it is likely to last,
- appropriate medical facts concerning the stress symptoms and condition, and
- if ongoing treatment will interfere with your work, when that treatment is to be given and how long it will last.4
However, not all workers in California are eligible for FMLA leave. To be eligible, you must:
- have worked for your employer for at least 1 year,
- have worked at least 1,250 hours in the year prior to requesting stress leave,
- work for a public agency, or for a private company with 50 or more employees, and
- work at a site where at least 50 people are employed within a 75-mile radius.5
If you are not an eligible employee for FMLA stress leave, you may be entitled to leave under state law.
California Family Rights Act (CFRA)
You may also be entitled to stress leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA). The CFRA is a state leave law that mirrors the FMLA. However, more people are eligible for leave under the CFRA than the FMLA.
Like the FMLA, the CFRA provides unpaid but job-protected medical leave. The medical leave is to treat a serious medical condition or to care for a family member with such a condition.6 Under the CFRA, a serious medical condition is a mental or physical condition that requires:
- inpatient care, or
- continuing treatment or supervision by a health care provider.7
That leave can be for as long as 12 work weeks in a 12-month period.8
However, you are far more likely to have eligibility for stress leave under the CFRA than the FMLA. To be eligible for leave under the CFRA, you must generally:
- have worked with your employer for at least 1 year,
- have worked at least 1,250 hours in the past year,
- work for a public agency or a private employer that has 5 or more employees.9
Many employees of small California employers are only eligible for stress leave under the CFRA.
Can I get paid sick leave?
Stress leave can be paid if you use paid time off (PTO). You may be able to use the following types of PTO to cover stress leave:
- sick days,
- vacation time, or
- personal days.
Full-time and part-time employees seeking time off for their mental health should review their employer’s leave policies to see what is available.
Am I entitled to workers’ comp?
You may be entitled to workers’ compensation for workplace stress that forces you to take a leave of absence. If you are eligible, you can receive two-thirds of your lost wages.10 These workers’ compensation benefits can cover at least some of your wage loss during an unpaid stress leave.
Under California workers’ compensation law, a psychiatric injury is compensable if it:
- is a mental disorder,
- causes a disability or the need for medical treatment, and
- is diagnosed under the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).11
The DSM, however, does not recognize “stress” as a psychiatric condition. However, some similar conditions are recognized as mental illnesses, such as:
- major depression, and
- generalized anxiety disorder.
To get workers’ comp for your workplace stress, though, you need to show that the stressful condition was predominantly caused by events in the workplace.12 This has to be shown by a preponderance of the evidence. Those workplace events cannot be personnel decisions or actions that were:
- nondiscriminatory, and
- in good faith.13
You are only eligible for workers’ comp benefits for a stress injury if you have been with your employer for at least 6 months.14
Can I get temporary disability assistance?
California law provides disability insurance for short-term workplace absences. This insurance is meant to cover wage losses for missed work from a non-work-related illness or injury. These benefits can offset some of your wage loss if your stress did not come from the workplace.
Can my boss fire me?
California state law forbids employers from discriminating against you for having a physical or mental disability. If you get fired because you took stress leave, it can amount to a wrongful termination. Less severe employment actions against you can be discriminatory.
The California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) defines a mental disability as a psychological disorder or condition that limits a major life activity. This includes medical conditions like:
- clinical depression, and
- anxiety disorder.15
If these impair a major life activity they can be legally protected. A major life activity includes:
- performing manual tasks,
- communicating, and
If you cannot perform your essential job functions because of a mental disability like stress, your employer has to provide a reasonable accommodation.17 They have to take these steps unless they would impose an undue hardship on the employer.
- 29 USC 2612(a)(1).
- 29 USC 2611(11).
- 29 USC 2613(b).
- 29 USC 2611(2) and (4).
- California Government Code 12945.2(a) and (b)(5) GOV.
- California Government Code 12945.2(b)(13) GOV.
- California Government Code 12945.2(a) GOV.
- California Government Code 12945.2(a) and (b)(4) GOV.
- California Labor Code 4653 LAB.
- California Labor Code 3208.3(a) LAB.
- California Labor Code 3208.3(b)(1) LAB.
- California Labor Code 3208.3(h) LAB.
- California Labor Code 3208.3(d) LAB.
- California Government Code 12926(j) GOV.
- California Government Code 12926(j)(1)(C) GOV.
- California Government Code 12940 GOV.