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workplace health

Have you ever felt you’re having a difficult time going to work due to your mental health?

In any given week, at least 500,000 Canadian employees call in sick due to mental illness. Depression and anxiety cost the Canadian economy at least $32.3-billion a year, and $17.3-billion a year is lost in foregone GDP due to lost productivity, according to a Conference Board of Canada report. When a person with a mental health issue needs to take time off from work, their organization’s attendance management policy will define their leave options, but employees also have an important responsibility in this process.


If you're struggling to be at work, this may be an important sign that something is not going right, and you could benefit from support. Taking some time off work may be what you need, but a week off work may not achieve the outcome you need to get healthy.

Many employees who call in sick a day here and there because they're not mentally up to it are, in essence, self-diagnosing. If this is your strategy and you start to call in sick on a regular basis, this coping mechanism will likely draw attention. You may also be missing out on the supports that your employer has in place.

Organizations that have a defined attendance or disability management system, whether managed internally or externally, have a common goal – to help employees get better and back to work as quickly as possible. These systems are driven by policies that are designed to hold employees accountable to provide evidence that they are indeed sick and have a treatment plan to get well.

Attendance and disability management programs provide a type of insurance for employees to get help in times of need, but they shouldn't be seen as an entitlement. They provide a helpful benefit that can provide time to get well when the leave is used correctly. It is well recognized that getting help sooner leads to better outcomes for employees with an illness. These programs are not designed to get employees out of work because they don't like what they're doing. Employees who don't comply with the rules outlined by the program are risk of losing the benefit or being disciplined by their employer.


Every employee owns their mental health, but it's not advisable to self-diagnose and develop your own treatment plan. It is always best to work with your medical doctor, in consultation with a mental health professional, to determine the best treatment and how time off work will help you, and what you will do with your time off to help you get better. Taking two months off and doing nothing other than sitting at home likely will not help you cope when you return to work. Your employer may in fact have supports in place to help. These supports could include extended health benefit plans, structured stay-at-work programs, workplace accommodations and assistance in getting medical treatment.


When you leave work due to a mental health issue, you should be planning to return to work and have a sense of that timing. This will help you define what's needed for success. It's important to be clear on your skills and abilities, and what accommodations and support will help you in your role.

1. Understand your employer’s attendance and disability management program.

Regardless of your employer's program, it's valuable to learn how it works. The objective is to support employees to successfully and safely return to work as quickly as possible. Case workers facilitate an organization's attendance and disability management program and will work directly with you with a set of defined rules. Their primary goal is to be supportive and to hold you accountable to ensure you are doing what you can to get back to work.

Typically, you will be assigned a case worker to support you. They are a resource and not the enemy. They don't have authority to change policies or benefits.

2. When off work, understand what your employer believes is the most important job for you.

Your sole job when you are off work is to do what you can to get well. This can include counselling, exercise, diet, rest, and following a treatment plan that may include skill development such as taking coping courses.

Using your time off productively is likely the single best predictor for which employees will successfully return to work and be able to get well and off disability.

Your employer invests in disability management programs to help employees get back to work, not to create a system that supports them to be off for an indefinite period. Most programs come to an end and if a person uses all the time allotted they will transition from short-term to long-term disability.

3. Get ready to return to work.

If you are off work with a mental illness, find out what you need to successfully get back to work. It's helpful to work with your case worker to frame and design a return-to-work plan that engages your direct manager as well as human resources.

It's beneficial to stay in touch with trusted peers at work and your manager. This helps to keep you plugged in to your community and feel connected. You don't need to share your personal health issue with people; just providing general updates and asking what's new is one way to keep yourself plugged in.

Bill Howatt is the chief research and development officer of work force productivity with Morneau Shepell in Toronto.

Allison Cowan is the Director of Workplace Health and Total Rewards Research at The Conference Board of Canada.

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