Epithelial monolayers are one-cell-thick tissue sheets that line most of the body surfaces, separating internal and external environments. As part of their function, they must withstand extrinsic mechanical stresses applied at high strain rates. However, little is known about how monolayers respond to mechanical deformations. Here, by subjecting suspended epithelial monolayers to stretch, we find that they dissipate stresses on a minute timescale and that relaxation can be described by a power law with an exponential cut-off at timescales larger than about 10 s. This process involves an increase in monolayer length, pointing to active remodelling of cellular biopolymers at the molecular scale during relaxation. Strikingly, monolayers consisting of tens of thousands of cells relax stress with similar dynamics to single rounded cells, and both respond similarly to perturbations of the actomyosin cytoskeleton. By contrast, cell–cell junctional complexes and intermediate filaments do not relax tissue stress, but form stable connections between cells, allowing monolayers to behave rheologically as single cells. Taken together, our data show that actomyosin dynamics governs the rheological properties of epithelial monolayers, dissipating applied stresses and enabling changes in monolayer length.