Insurance provider Manulife says financial planner’s disability claim lacks evidence
Just a few years ago, the Royal Bank financial planner won performance awards for bringing so much business into his branch in Quebec.
But earlier this year, he says, the pressure of hitting sales targets — compounded by the death of a family member and a break-in at home — became too much.
He says he couldn't eat, couldn't sleep for more than a few hours a night and felt constantly stressed, anxious and exhausted. Even getting out of bed was a chore.
All of it affected his work.
"It was harder and harder every day," he told Go Public. "It was difficult to focus and I would forget things for clients, or appointments."
CBC News is not revealing his identity, as he fears professional repercussions.
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His doctor diagnosed severe burnout and prescribed time off work and psychotherapy.
But when he applied for short-term disability to take that break, Manulife — which provides insurance benefits for RBC — rejected the claim.
The employee has been off work without pay for four months. RBC told him he had to get back to work last week or he'd be fired.
"I can't believe that, in 2023, with the big talk that companies give about caring [about mental health], they just send me a letter saying, 'Go back to work,'" he said.
After Go Public contacted RBC, the bank sent its employee another letter saying it is reviewing new information, so his termination is on hold.
RBC threatened to fire employee who requested stress leave
An RBC financial planner says his high-pressure job contributed to burnout, anxiety and depression. But as he told CBC Go Public, when he asked for short-term disability, his insurance provider declined the claim, and RBC threatened to fire him.
Burnout rates 'too high'
More than one in five Canadians said they "frequently" experience workplace burnout in a recent online survey by the non-profit Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC).
Another 34 per cent of respondants reported "sometimes" experiencing burnout. The online survey of more than 5,500 people was conducted in March and April this year.
"We have not prioritized mental health sufficiently in the workplace," said Michael Cooper, a statistician and vice-president of development at MHRC.
"Everyone's burnout rates remain too high."
One Toronto psychologist — who says her practice is seeing a growing number of people suffering from burnout — also says employers are not doing enough to address the issue.
"A lot of workplaces are starting to use language to promote mental wellness," said Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee. "But the people who have the power to make decisions… their views are not changing."
She says burnout, left unchecked, can be accompanied by severe mental health illnesses, often leading employees to turn to their insurance providers 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 to disengage from daily tasks.
"We live in a culture that interprets burnout quite lightheartedly … rather than a way for us to consider that a person is far beyond their capacity right now."
Burnout not recognized for coverage
Manulife initially rejected the employee's request for short-term disability because because the company doesn't recognize it as a condition that's covered.
When he returned to his doctor for further medical testing, he was also diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive episode — not uncommon, according to Alani-Verjee.
"Burnout kind of becomes 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 declined.
In a letter to him, which Go Public translated from French, the insurance giant outlined its reasons.
Among other things, Manulife said his condition was not severe because he was not prescribed medication, only therapy — an argument which frustrates Alani-Verjee, who says using psychotherapy as a first line of treatment is common and recommended.
"The recommendation made by his family doctor is a totally appropriate first line of treatment, even if Manulife doesn't think so," she said.
Manulife also claimed the employee took too long to see a psychologist — seven weeks — which Alani-Verjee calls "illogical," given that there could be any number of reasons for that, including that the pandemic increased demand for therapists.
The employee says many therapists he called had no availability or were not trained in the type of counselling his doctor recommended.
How to tell if you’re burned out
Clinical psychologist Dr. Taslim Alani-Verjee defines burnout symptoms — and what you can do to combat them.
Manulife also cited the fact that the employee said he could watch TV, visit his parents once a week and go to church as evidence 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, said Alani-Verjee, noting that the stressors of his workplace are completely absent in those situations.
The financial planner says his job requires him to convince people to invest with RBC and bring existing investments to the bank.
"There is 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 has objectives, too."
He described weekly, sometimes daily, meetings with his manager, urging him to meet his targets.
Every month she would show 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 pressure."
Go Public investigated the high-pressure sales culture inside Canada's big banks in 2017.
Thousands of bank employees past and present described relentless pressure to meet sales targets, sometimes unethically, or risk losing their jobs.
It concluded that the sales culture increased the risk of selling customers products they don't need, can't afford, or that were based on unclear or incomplete information.
In correspondence with Go Public at the time, all the big 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, saying she had confidence he could do the job.
"She would tell me she cared, but I wouldn't see any real concrete action from her part," he said. "They talk about mental health, but I've seen no help whatsoever."
That's when he decided he would have to take unpaid leave.
Alani-Verjee, the psychologist, says most people have an inherent drive to be productive and contribute to society.
"So when we have someone who is coming to us for help, the appropriate response is to say, 'How can we help you?'" she said. "Not, 'You can do this. And if you can't do it, you'll lose your job.'"
She notes workplaces are required to make accommodations when they're requested by a health professional, as in this case.
The employee's doctor wrote in a statement to Manulife dated March 16, 2023, 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 address whether accommodations were offered, citing privacy reasons.
The bank's director of communications, 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 to providing employees with access to resources to help them thrive.
Manulife also said in a statement to Go Public that it could not comment specifically due to privacy reasons.
"While we strive to do everything within our power to serve our customers, there are times when claims are denied following 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 wellbeing of Canadians" by providing coverage for many diagnoses "including Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Episodes, stress, fatigue, and insomnia."
He did not address why Manulife then denied coverage to a customer with those medical issues.
The financial planner says his anxiety and depression are constant, and that he is struggling to pay the bills, with no income or insurance benefits.
After RBC told him on June 16 that plans to terminate his job were on hold, he's heard nothing further.
So much in his life is uncertain, he says, but one thing.
"I know that I cannot do this job right now."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erica Johnson is an award-winning investigative journalist. She hosted CBC's consumer program Marketplace for 15 years, investigating everything from dirty hospitals to fraudulent financial advisors. As co-host of the CBC news segment Go Public, Erica continues to expose wrongdoing and hold corporations and governments to account.
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