Sick Calls and Mental Health: Is There a Connection?

Are you having a hard time going to work because of mental health issues?

Do you find that you are calling in sick because of these issues?

Well, you are not alone! In any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work effectively due to mental health issues. This includes:

  • An estimate of 355,000 disability cases due to mental and/or behavioural disorders (Dewa, Chau, & Dermer, 2010), plus
  • 175,000 full-time workers absent due to mental illness (Institute of Health Economics, 2007)

Work is an important facet to our well-being, however mental health issues can have a big impact on our attendance and ability to work. In addition to earning an income, employment provides five essential elements of psychological experience that promote mental health and well-being (World Health Organization, n.d., & Canadian Mental Health Association, n.d):

  1. Time structure - an absence of structure can become a major psychological burden
  2. Opportunity for social interaction - connecting with clients and colleagues
  3. Collective effort and purpose - providing 'something' that is bigger than ourselves
  4. Social identity - defining oneself
  5. Regular activity - organizing one's daily life

When we our feeling mentally unbalanced at work, we are unable to fully reap these five particular benefits. So the question remains, how can we avoid workplace absence and regain presence while keeping us mentally healthy in our respective occupations?


If you take time off of work due to a mental health issue, your organization’s attendance or disability management policy will generally dictate your leave options. Although attendance and disability management programs provide an avenue for employees to receive help, they shouldn't be viewed as an entitlement. These programs are designed to help employees get better and back to work as quickly as possible, not get them out of work because they don't like what they're doing. As an employee you have an important responsibility in the process of gaining awareness of your mental health, being accountable, and most importantly TAKING ACTION (Howatt & Cowan, 2017). 

Gaining Awareness

Struggling at work may be a sign that certain things are not going right, and that you may benefit from coping strategies or support from your employer. Although you may think that taking time off of work is what you need, taking extended sick time is not the best solution to the issues at hand. Moreover, calling in sick on a regular basis will also draw unwanted attention. 

Being Accountable

It is your responsibility as an employee to seek out the appropriate supports. Consider working with your family doctor, or consulting with a mental health professional to decide which treatments are best, and how much time off you require if applicable. Other supports include: extended health benefits, workplace accommodations, and gradual return to work programs to provide a best-fit given your unique mental health circumstances. 

Taking Action

If you take a leave of absence due to a mental health issue, you should be actively planning your return to work as well as timing of when this will take place. Consider the following tips in planning for your return (Howatt & Cowan, 2017):

  • Understand your employer's attendance and disability management programs - consult with your case worker on how to best navigate the return to work process
  • Use your time off productively - this can include counselling, exercise, taking coping courses, or engaging in restful activities
  • Find out what you need to successfully return to work - collaborate with your case worker to design a  return to work plan that satisfies your manager as well as human resources

As access to satisfying and psychologically safe work remains one of the most sought-after goals of the adult population of most countries, it is important to address the mental health impacts of absenteeism by having open and honest conversations with all stakeholders involved. 

How does your employer address absenteeism and its impacts? Let us know in the comments below!




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World Health Organization. (2002). Mental Health and Work. Nations for mental health. Retrieved from

Howatt, B., & Cowan, A. (2017.). Are you calling in sick because of your mental health? Retrieved from

Dewa, C. S., Chau, N., & Dermer, S. (2010). Examining the comparative incidence and costs of physical and mental health-related disabilities in an employed population. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 52: 758-62. Number of disability cases calculated using Statistics Canada employment data, retrieved from

Institute of Health Economics (2007). Mental health economics statistics in your pocket. Edmonton: IHE. Number of absent workers calculated using Statistics Canada work absence rates, retrieved from