Time for burnout rebrand | Courtney Mulqueen

By Courtney Mulqueen

Law360 Canada (November 27, 2023, 1:14 PM EST) --
Courtney Mulqueen
Courtney Mulqueen
Job burnout is by no means a new phenomenon. We all know stress is the cause of many debilitating conditions.

But there seem to be misconceptions about how dangerous it is, how it affects employees and a business’s bottom line. More education is necessary in terms of identifying the early signs of burnout.

It is time the term “burnout” got a rebrand.

Employers must be accommodating, and insurance companies need to be more understanding and supportive of these claims. Large corporations including the insurance companies themselves have turned their focus to mental health in recent years but burnout appears to have slipped through the cracks as being a legitimate reason why people need to stop working.

According to the Mayo Clinic workplace burnout “is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

The medical centre states you may be experiencing job burnout if you:

  • have become cynical or critical at work;
  • drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started;
  • have become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients;
  • lack the energy to be consistently productive;
  • find it difficult to concentrate;
  • lack satisfaction from your achievements;
  • feel disillusioned about your job;
  •  use food, drugs or alcohol to cope;
  • experience a change in your sleep habits; and
  • are troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints.

Many of us are programmed to go, go, go and the ability to rise above the stress is often admired and rewarded. But it can lead to serious disability.

Burnout tends to be stigmatized. The attitude by some employers, insurance companies and even doctors is that we just need to push through and get back to work.

In the early stages of burnout people may not even realize what is happening to them. Clients tell me that they are not functioning like they once did. It may take many appointments with their family doctor and referrals to various specialists. And even then, there is such a shortage of treatment providers that it may take months before they get a diagnosis and care.

A deeper understanding of the impact of burnout is needed, especially within the insurance industry. Take, for example, a recent CBC News report detailing a once highly successful financial planner’s struggle to obtain insurance benefits after suffering from burnout.

The man told CBC that he couldn’t eat, slept only a few hours a night and felt constantly stressed, anxious and exhausted.

His doctor diagnosed severe burnout and prescribed time off work and psychotherapy, according to CBC. He applied for short-term disability, but his claim was rejected. After being off work without pay for four months, his employer threatened to fire him if he didn’t return to his job, it was reported. The company later put the termination plan on hold.

After further medical testing, he was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive episode but a second attempt to get benefits was denied, CBC stated.

The insurer told the news agency the man’s condition was not severe because he was not prescribed medication, only therapy. The company also said the man also took too long to see a psychologist.

This man’s plight, while unfortunate, is not uncommon.

Claiming the man didn’t see a psychologist soon enough or didn’t take medication are not sufficient reasons to deny a claim for benefits. Wait lists for psychiatrists are long and there has been an increased demand for therapists in recent years.

Just because someone hasn’t seen a psychiatrist or hasn’t yet tried medication does not mean they are not disabled and entitled to disability benefits.

I have represented clients who are reluctant to take medication for a mental health issue. Insurance companies dictating treatment is a slippery slope. It should be up to medical specialists to weigh the options and determine the risk.

Forcing someone back to work when they are legitimately suffering from burnout is not only bad for the employee but it is risky for the employer.

If someone returns to work too soon while still suffering from burnout, the added stress can aggravate their condition, trigger other conditions such as anxiety and depression and prolong their recovery. It can also have serious consequences for their relationship with their employer. They may not be able to properly perform their job duties and mistakes could be costly.

If someone’s cognitive function is impaired, any errors they make could be detrimental to the company’s bottom line and put them at risk of being terminated.

While an employer may feel justified in firing a worker in such cases, they could ultimately face a wrongful dismissal lawsuit for failing to accommodate a person with a known disability.

I have known clients who have been served notice that their disability claim had been denied and then threatened with dismissal if they don’t return to work by a certain date. That is such a risky move for an employer because there may be implications under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

I always tell clients their health is their number one priority and remind them that their employer has duties and obligations to them irrespective of what the insurer has said.

From a business perspective, employers would be better off if everyone in the organization had some general knowledge about burnout so people could potentially determine who may be suffering from it. Then they would then know how to respond.

If people receive the help they need early or get a workplace accommodation, they might be better able to manage their stress. That way they may be able to avoid debilitating depression that leads to short and long-term disability claims.

Insurance providers who deny burnout claims not only risk litigation but also more serious and costly benefit claims.

Courtney Mulqueen, of Mulqueen Disability Law, has over 20 years experience litigating disability claims. Her focus and passion is representing disabled plaintiffs who suffer with complex “invisible conditions” like mental health and chronic conditions that are difficult to prove, diagnose and treat.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the author’s firm, its clients, Law360 Canada, LexisNexis Canada, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.

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