Just a few years ago, the Royal Bank’s financial planner won performance awards for bringing so much business to his Quebec branch.
But earlier this year, he says, the pressure to meet sales targets — exacerbated by the death of a family member and a home break-in — became too great.
He says he couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep more than a few hours a night, and felt constantly stressed, anxious, and exhausted. Even getting out of bed was a chore.
It all affected his work.
“It got harder and harder every day,” he told Go Public. “It was hard to concentrate and I forgot things for clients or appointments.”
Breaking: is not disclosing his identity, fearing professional repercussions.
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His doctor diagnosed severe burnout and prescribed leave and psychotherapy.
But when he filed for short-term disability to take that break, Manulife — which provides insurance benefits for RBC — denied the claim.
The employee has been unpaid for four months. RBC told him last week that he had to go back to work or he would be fired.
“I can’t believe that in 2023, with all the big talk companies are having about care (about mental health), they’re just sending me a letter saying ‘Go back to work,'” he said.
After Go Public contacted RBC, the bank sent her employee another letter saying she was reviewing new information, so his resignation was put on hold.
Burnout figures ‘too high’
More than one in five Canadians said they experience workplace burnout “often” in a recent online survey by the nonprofit organization Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC).
Another 34 percent of respondents reported experiencing burnout “sometimes”. The online survey of more than 5,500 people was conducted in March and April of this year.
“We haven’t been prioritizing mental health in the workplace enough,” said Michael Cooper, statistician and vice president of development at MHRC.
“Everyone’s burnout rates remain too high.”
A Toronto psychologist — who says her practice is seeing a growing number of people with burnout — also says employers aren’t doing enough to address the problem.
“Many workplaces are starting to use language to promote mental well-being,” says Dr Taslim Alani-Verjee. “But the people who have the power to make decisions… their views don’t change.”
She says burnout, if left unchecked, can lead to serious mental illness, often leading employees to turn to their insurer for a break.
Despite its prevalence in society, Alani-Verjee says burnout is widely misunderstood.
It’s a “depletion of resources,” she said, which can cause symptoms such as significant shifts in one’s energy and motivation, choosing to isolate socially and detach from daily tasks.
“We live in a culture that interprets burnout rather lightly…rather than a way for us to think that a person is way beyond their capabilities right now.”
Burnout not recognized for coverage
Manulife initially rejected the employee’s request for short-term disability because the company does not recognize it as a covered condition.
When he returned to his doctor for further medical examination, he was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive episode – not uncommon, according to Alani-Verjee.
“Burnout becomes sort of an umbrella term for those major depressive symptoms and those anxiety symptoms,” she said.
Armed with that diagnosis, the employee tried again to get short-term disability coverage. But again, Manulife refused.
In a letter to him, which Go Public translated from French, the insurance giant explained its reasons.
Among other things, Manulife said his condition was not serious because he was not prescribed any medication, only therapy – an argument that frustrates Alani-Verjee, who says using psychotherapy as a first-line treatment is common and recommended.
“His GP’s recommendation is a perfectly appropriate first-line treatment, even if Manulife doesn’t think so,” she said.
Manulife also claimed that the employee was taking too long to see a psychologist – seven weeks – which Alani-Verjee calls “illogical” as there could be all sorts of reasons for this, including the fact that the pandemic drove up the demand for therapists increase.
The employee says many therapists he called were either unavailable or not trained in the type of counseling his doctor recommended.
Manulife also cited the fact that the employee said he could watch TV, visit his parents once a week and go to church as proof that he does not have a “totally disabling condition”.
Those “basic activities of daily living” are not indicators of whether someone has a mental illness, Alani-Verjee said, noting that the stressors of his workplace are completely absent in those situations.
Pressure cooker environment
The financial planner says his job requires him to convince people to invest with RBC and bring existing investments to the bank.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” he said. “Everyone at the bank has objectives and targets. The financial advisors bring me referrals and expect me to close the clients. The branch manager also has objectives.”
He described weekly, sometimes daily meetings with his manager, urging him to meet his goals.
Every month she showed him a chart, he said, showing the performance of every other financial planner in the country so he could see how he compared.
“They say it’s for motivation,” he said. “But it’s extra busy.”
In 2017, Go Public examined the high-pressure sales culture within Canada’s major banks.
Thousands of past and present bank employees described the relentless pressure to meet sales targets, sometimes in an unethical way or risk losing their jobs.
The Finance Committee of the House of Representatives called a bench hearing that year and the banking regulator, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, performed a review.
It concluded that sales culture increases the risk that customers sell products they do not need, cannot afford, or are based on unclear or incomplete information.
In correspondence with Go Public at the time, all major banks denied having high-pressure sales environments.
‘No help whatsoever’
The financial planner says when he told his manager that his mental health was suffering and he needed time off, she didn’t listen.
Instead, he says, she encouraged him to get back on track and said she was confident he could get the job done.
“She would tell me she cared, but I wouldn’t see any real concrete action on her part,” he said. “They talk about mental health, but I haven’t seen any help.”
Then he decided that he should take unpaid leave.
Alani-Verjee, the psychologist, says that most people have an inherent drive to be productive and contribute to society.
“So when we have someone coming to us for help, the right response is to say, ‘How can we help you?'” she said. “Not, ‘You can do this. And if you can’t, you’ll lose your job.'”
She notes that workplaces are required to make adjustments when requested by a health professional, as in this case.
The employee’s doctor wrote in a March 16, 2023 statement to Manulife that his patient needed time off and “support from his employer” to ensure he could focus on treatment “without additional stressors.”
In a statement to Go Public, RBC did not comment on whether any accommodations were being offered, citing privacy concerns.
The bank’s communications director, Cheryl Brean, wrote that employee well-being is a “top priority” and that the bank is “committed to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace” and providing employees with access to resources to help them thrive .
Manilife too said in a statement to Go Public that it could not respond specifically for privacy reasons.
“While we strive to do everything in our power to serve our customers, there are times when claims are rejected after a thorough investigation,” wrote Manulife’s head of media relations Luke Shane.
He says the insurer “is proud of the work we do to support the health and well-being of Canadians” by providing coverage for many diagnoses “including generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive episodes, stress, fatigue and insomnia.”
He did not elaborate on why Manulife subsequently refused coverage to a client with those medical issues.
The financial planner says his anxiety and depression are constant and he struggles to pay the bills, with no income or insurance payments.
After RBC told him on June 16 that plans to terminate his job were on hold, he has heard nothing further.
So much in his life is uncertain, he says, only one thing.
“I know I can’t do this job right now.”
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