Calling in Sad (or Sick) to Avoid Workplace Problems?
Calling in Sad (or Sick) to Avoid Workplace Problems?

How Big is This Issue?

According to Health Canada, mental health problems are a leading cause of disability in Canada. In 2008, the Institute of Health Economics reported that during any given week approximately 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental illness (click here for more details and stats).

As astonishing as those numbers are, they underestimate the true problem since those stats don’t include the employees who are at work but underperforming due to these issues. Some call this “presenteeism”, referring to the fact that the employee is present at the office but might as well be absent because of how little they are able to accomplish. Further, those numbers don’t include the approximately 175,000 full-time workers who are absent from work due to mental health problems but who are not (yet) on short- or long-term disability.


Mental health problems at unpleasant jobIn another Canadian study, 82% of respondent organizations ranked mental-health problems as their top three causes of short-term disability and 72% of the organizations ranked mental health as a major cause of long-term disability (click here for more information about this study).

Mental Health Challenges as Symptoms of Workplace Problems – Are You Suffering?


I am a Career Coach who uses Industrial / Organizational (I/O) psychology as a foundation, and from what I have seen professionally, at least 30% of my clients who are on short or long-term disability are legitimately suffering from anxiety, depression, burnout, or related issues but these problems are often symptoms of what’s happening to them at work. In other words, the disability is legitimate but the root cause is not strictly psychological.

What do I mean? How can work affect mental health?

Well, the root cause is that there is something going very poorly within their work environment. In some cases, they are in a position or on a career path that is unsuitable for them. Sometimes there’s a poor match between the person and the management style or organizational culture. In other cases, there are serious interpersonal problems at play (e.g., bullying or harassment etc.). Regardless of the fine details, when someone is in a role or environment that is a poor match for them, over time, the stress of it can contribute to burnout or other psycho-emotional consequences.

What’s the Solution?

There are specialists who help clients manage their disabilities by offering innovative Case Management. They support employee recovery and minimize lost time while reducing costs for employers.

Mental health problems because of unpleasant jobThese specialist advisors can create and/or coordinate interventions that allow clients to recover to a point where they can return to work. Some of these specialists have often noticed that when most of a client’s symptoms have resolved and clients are starting to prepare for their return to work that’s when the underlying mental health issues emerge. At that point, it is extremely clear that a big part of the problem was not some of those other physical symptoms but rather the problems that were happening at work.

When the thought of returning to work triggers considerable anxiety and/or depression, that’s when nuanced and strategic career coaching becomes especially relevant. It is at this crossroads that clients realize that they need to figure out a different way forward.


It is for these reasons that I sometimes call disability a euphemism. In these situations, disability acts like a mask for problems at work.

How HR Can Help

Given the costs associated with these types of disability claims, I propose a different approach. I believe it is imperative we develop graceful, sustainable, and cost-effective exit strategies. In my professional experience, it is significantly cheaper to invest 10 to 15 hours with clients to avoid or shorten a (short or long-term) disability claim. That said, these are very delicate situations that deserve the skill and attention of a competent advisor. What I offer is “More than Career Coaching, it’s Career Psychology®.”

Most family doctors and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers have never heard of “Career Psychology” which is the brand of Career Coaching that I practice based on my doctorate in Industrial / Organizational Psychology and 15+ years of professional experience. Family doctors and EAPs sometimes suggest clinical psychology or psychiatry interventions to help deal with the mental health aspects but that’s an approach that only addresses part of the problem (i.e., the mental health problems) without addressing the root cause(s).


If this blog post resonates with you (or someone you know) I invite you to contact me privately by phone (I offer a no-obligation, free 15 to 20-minute initial phone consultation)email, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.


More than career coaching, it’s career psychology®.


I/O Advisory Services – Building Resilient Careers and Organizations.™


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