What 5 Unpaid Sick Days Taught Me About Mental Illness and Money


This past month, I called in sick 5 days in a row. The 9-5 work schedule is exhausting and draining. My mental health was declining, and consequently my physical health.

Of course, taking 5 days off without pay was daunting. Each day I called in ridden with financial guilt and stress. I had to re-adjust my budget for the month and come to terms with the fact that I’d be $500 poorer. But overall, it was the right decision for me. Those five days gave me a chance to rest and create a plan of action for bettering my mental health. But most importantly taught me a lot about mental illness, how money affects it, and the system that lets them grow and thrive among many individuals.

Financial worry is my biggest stressor

This might seem obvious to most people. But it wasn’t until my girlfriend asked me “what is stopping you from calling in sick?” and I simply answered “money” that I realized this huge stressor in my life was making my mental illness significantly worse. I’m not the only one. In fact, people are more stressed about money than work or relationships.

Identifying money as my biggest worry was an important step for both my personal and financial well-being. It urged me to make a plan, which is necessary in times like these.

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I decided to whip out my budgeting notebook and re-adjust my planned monthly spending. I cut out the “fun stuff” like coffee shop visits, entertainment, and take out food to ease my mind and ensure I’d still have emergency money. This, of course, sent me spiraling. I realized to keep myself above water (both financially and mentally) I had to eliminate any spending on special things I enjoy.

Budgeting added even MORE stress for me

I also made a list of other resources that would help me get through the month. I found a wellness centre on my school’s campus where I could pick up things like tampons or deodorant! And I realized that the discount food section would be a good friend of mine for the upcoming weeks, and potentially the future. Locating free and cheap resources was one of the more uplifting things I learned. It surprised me to see the variety of options available to help me.

After all this budgeting I realized that the upkeep of my finances, especially with a small income, was a job in itself. And an exhausting one at that. I spent so much time deciphering my finances and researching programs and resources to fall back on that it only made me more tired and stressed about my job.

Getting defensive: setting up your finances to protect you

Sick days shouldn’t add to your stress, but they did for me because of the financial impact. There are a few ways you can set up your banking to make the days when you might be struggling easier to manage.

Set up a mental health fund

Mental health services are expensive. Whether it’s therapy or filling a prescription, it can be prohibitively expensive to access essential mental health services. The last thing you want in the crux of an anxiety attack or depressive episode is a bill for hundreds of dollars. A simple fix is to set up a small amount of savings dedicated to your mental health. As little as $200 in a high-interest savings account is enough to cover an emergency therapy visit or a prescription refill or even a couple of days off from work. This way, the next time you’re facing a mental health crisis, you’ll have a small dedicated fund to draw from.

Keep building your real Emergency Fund

In addition to your mental health fund, which is specifically for more urgent mental health expenses, you should also strive to continue to build a regular emergency fund. Ideally, you want your Emergency Fund to cover 3-6 months of essential expenses. While that total might seem daunting, you can start to build one on as little as $20 per week. Having a large cash cushion is essential to protect you in the event you need to take an extended time away from work.

Get ahead of your tasks when you’re able to

When you’re struggling with mental health, you might not have the energy to even do simple essential tasks like laundry or grocery shopping. Getting ahead on errands or to-dos when you do have energy will spare you extra stress when you don’t. It might be as simple as automating your bills, or stocking up on soap and toilet paper so you don’t have to shop at a time when you might not feel motivated to leave the house. Anything you can do now instead of later is worth getting out of the way when you’re able to!

Finding a workflow that doesn’t cause anxiety

We all know that capitalism is hellbent on maintaining its system. In fact, poverty is the main cause of poor health for Canadians. The system we live in is structured to make poor people get poorer and increasingly mentally ill. Additionally, people with serious mental illnesses are more likely to become poor. It is a constant cycle. People living on a low income are more likely to commit suicide and have mental health issues. The connection between one’s income and mental health is undeniable.

Full-time work is draining

It is both mentally and physically exhausting to work for eight hours a day, five days a week. And yet, most of us do. It is unreasonable to expect workers to endure that every week.

I have depression and anxiety. Despite continually working on treating my mental illnesses, I can recognize certain environments, situations, and/or routines in which I thrive. When I am not waking up at 7:30 in the morning and instead can ease into my day, I am happier, more productive, and less stressed. And this has nothing to do with laziness or disinterest in work, and everything to do with working on a schedule that makes me happier and healthier mentally and physically.

The idea that eight-hour workdays are what a workday should be is so ingrained in our society. It makes it hard to be able to accept anything different. However, many employers are increasingly offering flexible work hours and generous work from home policies that focus more on deliverables than time. Working for yourself, if you can find a way to earn enough, is also a good way to gain control over your schedule.

It’s hard to talk to employers about mental illness

When I called in sick, I told my employers I had a family emergency. But truthfully, my depressive episode was the emergency. Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s still recognized as less valid than physical illnesses in most situations.

Despite some progress regarding the stigma of mental illness, the nitty-gritty of it is hard to confront. Whether it be a brain filled with anxiety or trouble adjusting to new medication, there is pressure to tell a lie about why I’m missing work because I fear being judged for being honest about my struggles. Mental illness is not pretty. And sometimes people who don’t struggle with them can’t understand that. This makes it nerve-wracking to discuss such things with my employers because a lack of understanding could easily change my work experience drastically.

Communicating with your employers is essential

However, this cycle of lies can easily catch up with you. And for me makes it difficult to be engaged in my work. I want to have an open dialogue with my employers. But the fear is still there. This, unfortunately, only feeds the cycle of my work and finances contributing to poor mental health.

This is not to say every employer responds in a negative way to mental health issues, but there can still be a mental block that prevents employees from talking about it due to past stigmatization.

These 5 days spent sick in bed clearly taught me a lot. We need progression with respect to open conversations about mental illness and the specific marginalized groups it affects the most. This is why sharing my story is so important to me.

Don’t let the system break you!

I am a firm believer that tending to your mental health should always come first. But, it will never be that simple so long as money is involved. The relationship between these two things is hard to ignore. But that does not mean it is impossible to balance both. As long as you pay attention to your bank account and check in with your mental health frequently, managing your health and budget is most definitely an option!

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