A fairly recent  

Faking mental illness at work is easier than faking physical illness for a number of reasons.  And with the massive increase of job insecurity resulting from the effect of the Covid pandemic on almost all industries, I fear this is something that employers need to be on a closer lookout for in their workplaces.  After all, a disability benefit is better than retrenchment.

So what are the reasons for faking, otherwise known as malingering?  There are three main ones: (i)  Avoidance of something unpleasant such as a disciplinary hearing, criminal investigation, or even work itself!; (ii)  Financial reward such as a disability benefit; and (iii)  Attention.  Apart from in a work environment, faking mental illness has been seen through the ages as an effort to minimise the consequences of criminal acts – the insanity defense so to speak.  A fairly recent example of this can be seen in the murder trial of Shrien Dewani (2010) – the man who brought his bride to South Africa on honeymoon and had her murdered in Cape Town.  I wondered why in the more case of Henri van Breda (2018), the young man who murdered his parents and brother, and attempted to murder his sister, all with an axe, didn’t try for the insanity plea instead of going for a ridiculously absurd and unbelievable story about masked intruders!

The main reasons that faking mental illness is easier than faking physical illness is the invisibility of many of the symptoms and the lack of objective evidence.  It’s difficult to fake a broken leg if you’re not wearing a POP cast and if you don’t have the supporting x-ray.  But in mental illness there are no bandages, crutches or x-rays – just the person’s subjective reports.  Even Psychiatrists rely quite heavily on their patients’ account of symptoms and it’s not unheard of for them too to be fooled by a well educated, google savvy malingerer.  Thankfully, there are some warning signs or red flags that Managers and HR Practitioners can look out for that could suggest the employee is faking.  These include the following:

  1. Absence of professional intervention

An employee that is suffering from a genuine mental illness such as clinical depression will have sought professional intervention, usually from a Psychiatrist.  I have heard sufferers of this condition describe it as the most painful and debilitating condition they have ever had and they will do almost anything to feel better…to simply want to continue living.

So if an employee is claiming to suffer from depression yet they have not even consulted their General Practitioner, often the first port of call, this is definitely a red flag warranting furthering investigation of their claim and work circumstances.

  1. Previous or pending disciplinary action.

As already mentioned, avoidance of something unpleasant is a common motivator behind faking illness.  If an employee suddenly claims to have an anxiety disorder as their hearing approaches, further investigation is warranted.

  1. Refusal to consent to the employer’s suggested intervention.

If the employer suggests further investigation in an effort to try to accommodate an employee reporting some or other mental illness and they refuse, it’s a definite red flag.  My experience is that employees with genuine illness desperately want and appreciate such interventions as they actually want to continue working.

  1. Predictable patterns of absenteeism.

Employees that suffer from real illness will not demonstrate predictable patterns of absenteeism as the flaring up their symptoms are unpredictable.  On the other hand, fakers will often be conveniently absent on Mondays and/or Fridays as well as either side of public holidays.  They will also push the limits of not needing to provide medical certificates because after all, they will not have actually been to a doctor because they are not actually ill.

  1. Playing the confidentiality card.

When someone has something to hide, they may decide to opt to play the doctor-patient confidentiality card.  While it is true that there is no legal onus on an employee to reveal details of any medical condition, my experience is that employees with genuine illness are more than willing to provide proof from their attending doctor.  Unwillingness to do this is a definite red card suggesting possible faking.

    I have to end off by emphasising that the “innocent until proven guilty” rule ought to apply when it comes to mental illness in the workplace.  While it is true that some employees take advantage and try to pull the wool over their employers’ eyes, mental illness is real and can be severely debilitating, even life threatening, for those that suffer from it in one of it’s many forms.  If an employee claims to be afflicted they ought to be believed until proven otherwise.  Remember, just because you can’t see it, certainly doesn’t mean it’s not there.  

    If you would like to learn more about the complex world of mental illness and the effect that it might be having on your organisation’s success, please get in touch…I would love to hear from you.


    Take care everyone.

    Your Partner in Mental Health Matters @ Work,


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