An old friend, the number 11 and a tinted-window van

My favourite number is 11, and there’s zero-per-cent chance you can guess why.

The Humber clan had a pool table in the basement. Slate covered in green felt, surrounded by a Mahogany-looking wood, with woven-leather baskets to catch the balls. My father’s love of it was met with equal loathing by my mother.

At every party, the men would separate from the women and head downstairs to play pool, drink Black and White scotch and smoke pipes and cigars. It was an asthmatic’s nightmare.  

My mom didn’t like that segregation of the sexes and got her revenge by using its green felt top as a platform to fold and store laundry, much to his chagrin. Ah, passive-aggressive family life in the 1970s and 1980s.

But back to 11. That is the one billiards ball that sort of looks like a Canadian flag — white and red stripes. I was a patriotic child, so it became my number. In every sport I ever played — soccer, baseball, hockey — I clamoured to wear what I considered to be hallowed digits.

An unwelcome phone call

Today, in the wake of a phone call from one of my oldest friends, I like that number a little less.

“I have 11 pages,” he said, piquing my curiosity. Your mind runs the gamut when presented with that kind of random information, but the tone in his voice wasn’t celebratory.

“I have 11 pages in my hand,” he continued. “It’s a list of every medication they have given me in the last few years.”

I’ll call him Matt. That’s not his real name, and he suffers from mental health issues. He has been diagnosed with a range of disorders — bipolar, depression, paranoia. You would, of course, guess none of this if you met him for the first time. He’s as average and extraordinary as anyone.

A hard worker, he has bounced around a few different industries in his career. With a mostly blue-collar resume, and university and college credentials, he has fallen victim to plant closures and layoffs far beyond his control. Compound those job losses with a recent divorce, and life has been more difficult for him of late. Doctors have prescribed him cocktail after cocktail of anti-depressants, but nothing has proven effective.

The private investigator appears

He’s frustrated, and recently went on short-term disability. It didn’t take long for a van with tinted windows to show up on his street. A tell-tale sign of a private investigator, possibly hired by his employer or its insurance carrier, to monitor his activities.

My first reaction was anger — Matt is a stand-up guy who would never fake illness or scam any system. But I get it. His employer or insurance company can’t work on those assumptions. My second reaction was frustration in general at the attitudes towards mental health.

Too often, the talk is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I can preach the benefits of low-cost, stress-reducing perks like flextime and working from home or finding new and innovative programs. But if I raise an eyebrow at an employee who dares to take advantage of it? Then I’m better off to have never broached the topic.

Organizations can invest in their workforces, with expensive training programs – such as mental health first aid – and invite employees to wear mood stickers as part of the popular and effective Not Myself Today campaign.

But if your first reaction to an employee who seeks help, who presents a doctor’s note and a request for leave because of mental health issues, is to roll your eyes or start searching for cause for dismissal, then you’re wasting your time and money. That’s what I suspected Matt’s employer was doing.

Advice from an investigator

I wanted to know what a PI could possibly hope to observe, so I phoned a buddy, an investigator at a law firm in Windsor, Ont., with a long history of catching malingerers – and cementing the case for legitimately disabled workers — to get his take.

He was stumped, at first — having never, to his knowledge, been hired to tail someone because of a mental health claim. But sometimes the employee, or the doctor, doesn’t provide enough information and the employer or insurer wants to see the worker’s routines.

“They want to see if you’re going to other employment, to see if you misrepresented yourself,” he said. “If I start following Todd Humber, and he’s not going to work but seems to be stopping at a psychiatrist’s office every other day for an hour, or a doctor’s office, it’s seeing the day-to-day activities.”

Even voices grate on him

My friend Matt told me that, right now, he can’t even stand the sound of other people’s voices. A stranger said hello when he was at the grocery store, and he became gripped with fear and abandoned his cart and went home. He’s living a nightmare.

An investigator could, in theory, follow someone into a public space like a grocery store and observe how they interact with members of the public or listen to the dialogue that happens between the worker and the cashier. That could confirm a severe case of social anxiety, for example.

That all makes sense. While it is impossible to confirm a mental health diagnosis with surveillance, it can rule out obvious scams — such as double dipping or outright lying.

You will be hard pressed to find an HR professional or an employer that won’t nod and say all the right things, the importance of taking it seriously and all the clichés about how it’s so easy to spot a broken arm but not a wounded mind.

To that, I say, yawn. A very loud and firm yawn.

Mental health’s lip service bill has been paid in full, and then some. Employers need to embrace programs and practices that may not be comfortable and hold managers accountable who stray from the script.

Some employers are getting this right and reaping the benefits of a psychologically safe workplace in the process. But too many are just going through the motions, saying the right words while orchestrating a long, corporate eye roll. I know which organization I’d rather work for — and I bet you do too.

About Todd Humber 19 Articles
Todd Humber is the editor-in-chief of North Wall Media, publishers of HR Law Canada.