Can I File for Disability for Stress?

If stress is making symptoms of your mental health disorder worse, you might qualify for medical leave or disability benefits.

By , Attorney · Seattle University School of Law
Updated 7/13/2022

Stress can manifest itself in many different ways at work. Some jobs are naturally more stressful than others, such as teacher, surgeon, or firefighter. But even jobs that aren't known for being highly stressful can become overwhelming if you're already struggling with mental health disorders like anxiety or depression.

Many people eventually stop working because they're unable to manage the stress of their day-to-day work duties (in other words, they suffer from "burnout"). If stress from your job—or at home—is magnifying symptoms of a mental condition, you might wonder if you qualify for short-term disability leave or Social Security disability benefits.

Can I Get Disability Benefits for Stress?

Whether you can take leave or get disability due to stress will depend on how long you're out of work. Some employers offer paid short-term disability leave for health issues related to stress, or you might be able to take unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). People who have been out of work for at least a year might qualify for Social Security disability benefits.

Stress Leave Under the FMLA

The FMLA is a federal law that guarantees covered employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for a serious health condition (including mental health). In order to take FMLA leave for stress-related mental health conditions, you'll need to show at least one of the following:

  • inpatient care including an overnight stay at a hospital or other medical care facility, such as a treatment center for addiction or eating disorders, or
  • ongoing treatment (multiple appointments) with a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, or social worker.

The FMLA sets the minimum standard for medical leave, but many states offer their own version of the FMLA that is more generous than the federal law. If you're employed in one of these states, you could be entitled to paid leave if you take time off due to stress.

Short-Term Disability for Stress

Some employers offer private short-term disability insurance to qualifying employees. Short-term disability benefits typically pay about 40-70% of your regular income for a period lasting from 3 to 12 months, depending on your policy.

Whether your short-term disability provider covers mental health conditions (including stress) will depend on the insurance company. Ask your human resources (HR) representative to go over your insurance policy with you. If your policy covers mental health conditions, you'll likely have to get a doctor's note saying that your stress is preventing you from doing your job, before you can take short-term disability.

Getting Social Security Disability Benefits for Stress

While FMLA or short-term disability benefits can be a good option (when available) for people who intend to return to work within the year, some people have additional mental conditions that can keep them from returning to work for years, if at all. The Social Security Administration (SSA) can provide benefits to people whose mental health prevents them from working for longer than one year.

Unlike with FMLA leave or short-term disability, you'll need to have more than a doctor's note for SSA to determine whether you qualify for benefits. With your permission, the agency will obtain and review progress notes from your doctor, counselor, or therapist. Your progress notes should contain the following information:

  • any diagnosis of a mental impairment such as depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • your doctor's comments about how you're feeling and acting during a visit, such as whether you're crying, tired, or afraid
  • mental status examinations showing any abnormalities in your thinking, like increased forgetfulness or frequently losing your train of thought, and
  • a list of medications that you're taking, as well as any side effects you might experience.

Social Security doesn't often award benefits for burnout alone, because in most cases the agency needs to see that you can't do less stressful work. But if your medical records show that you would have a hard time performing even the easiest jobs on a full-time basis (whether due to absences, low productivity, or the inability to focus), the SSA can find you disabled.

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