Have you ever called in “sad?”
Have you ever called in “sad?”

Sometimes people with mental health challenges call in sad to avoid work problems

Have you ever called in sick because you actually felt sick at the thought of going to work? Let’s face it, while the overdue conversation about mental health has finally started, there is still no easy way to call work and say what you really need is a mental health day or even a mental health week. It’s still pretty hard to call in “sad.”

If you did call in “sad” you wouldn’t be alone.  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 (more details and stats are available).


I have a theory about mental health and how it relates to work. In my experience, many mental health challenges are symptoms of genuine workplace problems. In other words, the disability is legitimate and real, but the root cause is not completely psychological or medical, it’s more circumstantial.

From my experience as a career coach and psychologist, at least 30 percent of my clients who have taken long-term disability leave are legitimately suffering from anxiety, depression, burnout, or related issues. What’s troubling is these problems are often symptoms of what’s happening to them at work. In other words, there is some issue within their work environment. A difficult boss; a difficult co-worker or a lack of support or proper tools to do a job. 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, such as actual bullying or harassment. 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.

“I went from one federal government department to another and I experienced total culture shock,” says my client “Jane” from some of my earlier posts. “I went from working on small teams with managers a few doors away, to working within a team of hundreds, reporting to remote team leaders and a manager I never met in the three years I was there. I didn’t adjust well to the impersonal culture. When I had a problem or question, there was no clear structure for finding what I needed to know. I felt like a number, and I felt lost.”

mental health challenges make some people call in sad to avoid work problems

The bad fit took its toll. “I found it harder and harder to force myself to go to work. I’d feel physically ill when I got to the door in the morning. I started calling in sick for a day here and there, but I wasn’t sick. I was sitting in one place, sometimes my car, for hours, often crying, and not being able to figure out what to do.” Jane ended up on short-term disability for several weeks. “Stress leave felt awful. I felt like a failure. I couldn’t handle my job; everyone else could handle it, so why couldn’t I?”

What’s the Solution?

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.

If Jane had come to me back then, for example, I would have helped her figure out that the problem wasn’t her, but that she had landed in the wrong job, and she needed to find a way out before things got to the point of burnout and a disability claim.

Mental Health and Related Services that Can Help

That said, these are very delicate situations that deserve the skill and attention of a competent advisor. Most family doctors and Employee Assistance Program (EAP) providers have never heard of “Career Psychology,” which is the brand of career coaching that I offer based on Industrial / Organizational Psychology.

mental health can improve after a break or a restFamily doctors and EAPs sometimes suggest clinical psychology, psychotherapy, or psychiatry interventions to help deal with the mental health symptoms, but that’s an approach that only addresses part of the problem — the psychological symptoms — without addressing the root cause, which may actually be someone is in the wrong job or the wrong organization. For information about the differences between clinical psychologists, psychotherapists, and psychiatry, please read this recent blog post.

Given the costs associated with these types of disability claims, I propose a different approach. I believe it’s imperative that we develop graceful, sustainable, and cost-effective exit strategies. In my professional experience, I have seen it be significantly less costly to invest 10 to 15 hours with a client to avoid or shorten a disability claim.

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)emailTwitterLinkedIn, or Facebook.


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


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


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