What health conditions are keeping employees from work?

It’s impossible to avoid the simple truth that people get sick, which often keeps them away from work. But which specific health conditions are keeping employees from doing their jobs?

The usual suspects

Plan sponsors don’t typically capture the reason for a casual absence in terms of a medical condition, says Paula Allen, vice-president of research and integrative solutions at Morneau Shepell Ltd. “But from talking to and surveying employees and looking at . . . health issues in the workplace, we have a pretty good sense.”

Read: Majority of Canadians suffering from a mental-health issue, sleeping disorder: survey

For instance, there are seasonal spikes in absenteeism, she says, such as a bad flu season. “The other thing we see across the board is pain. There are a lot of employees suffering from pain from different conditions, usually musculoskeletal — so back pain, joint pain, repetitive strain — and they tend to be a risk of disability, not just absence.”

Julie Holden, principal at Holden & Associates Consulting Inc., also points to musculoskeletal disorders among the chronic illnesses affecting work-place absence. Cancers and cardiovascular disease are also on the rise, she adds.

And a 2015 survey by Morneau Shepell found half of incidental absences weren’t due to illnesses, but to family and personal issues, stress, job dissatisfaction or trouble at work, as well as the simple fact that people want to use up their paid sick days.

Absenteeism by the numbers

Days missed per year, per employee, by province in 2017


Nova Scotia

New Brunswick


Newfoundland & Labrador

Prince Edward Island

British Columbia




Source: Statistics Canada

Mental-health issues continue to rise

However, mental-health issues are becoming the top reason for absenteeism in Canada, and a 2017 survey by Willis Towers Watson found they’re generating major costs to organizations, largely due to absenteeism and disability.

“Mental-health claims are the leading cause of employee absence, representing 30 per cent of disability claims and 70 per cent of the costs of all short- and long-term disabilities combined,” says Holden. “It’s estimated that one in four Canadians are affected by depression, which is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and this is showing up in the claims data.”

Read: Editorial: Deck the halls with mental-health support 

Mental health affects everything, says Allen. “It’s not just the person can’t face going to work. You can have what otherwise would be a minor ailment, a minor ache or pain, a flu that’s a cold not a flu, but if you’re feeling drained, if you’re tired, feeling depressed or anxious, then those symptoms get worse and make it feel like you can’t come into the workplace, so it makes everything else worse in addition to having an issue itself.”

Stemming absenteeism rates

At Ontario Power Generation, the No. 1 health issue is mental health, followed by musculoskeletal and respiratory illnesses, such as colds, says Tanya Hickey, senior manager of health and safety strategies.

The company saved $1 million with a pilot program focused on first day absence reporting, which led to its win in the absence management category at Benefits Canada’s 2018 Workplace Benefits Awards. “We’re looking at doing that across the whole organization,” says Hickey. “If we had $1 million savings with 700 employees, what can we do with 9,000 employees?”

Read: OPG wins absence management award for efforts to shift workplace culture

With respect to OPG’s major medical absences, it recognizes mental health is a huge issue. “It’s about a quarter of our major medical absences and almost half of our long-term [absences],” says Hickey.

The organization implemented mental-health first aid training, with 2,400 leaders participating in the past two years. “What we saw in our stats [from that training] was that more people were getting help sooner,” says Hickey.

As well, while the incidence of staff going off on mental-health leave is increasing, the duration is decreasing, she says, “so they were getting help sooner as opposed to getting more chronic. And our LTD transition went from four per cent to 0.2 per cent.

“I think by doing all these things, we’re seeing the return on investment. The mental-health first aid training was the best investment I think we ever did. You have to spend money to get the return on your investment.”

Alethea Spiridon is managing editor of Benefits Canada.