It goes without saying that for nearly the last full year, we have all been living in a state of uncertainty due, in very large part, to the pandemic. As we discussed late last year (and in former posts about COVID-19’s impact), exactly how the pandemic affected varying organizations and individuals has differed significantly – but few have been immune to feeling an impact in some form. While the pandemic’s toll on mental health has been clear from the outset, we are now beginning to see some of the longer-term effects of ongoing social isolation, loneliness, financial uncertainty, fear, and related stressors.

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the statistics in the general Canadian population.

While the long-term mental health after-effects of COVID-19 (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) are yet to be seen, as a result of the ongoing polling of Canadians by Statistics Canada, Mental Health Research Canada (MHRC, who also looked at pre-pandemic occurrence of mental health issues), the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, (CAMH), the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), and Leger Marketing, we have learned that:

  • Anxiety – One of the most prevalent mental health concerns pre-pandemic, anxiety typically affects about 3% of Canadians. MHRC’s data revealed that 5% of Canadians experienced anxiety just prior to COVID-19. That number (consistent from April to October) jumped significantly to 20%, with individuals noting their anxiety as moderate to severe. For those with pre-existing mental health conditions, that number rose to 38%.
  • Depression – According to MHRC, 4% of surveyed individuals reported severe depression pre- pandemic. This rose to 10-13%. CAMH reported the number as 24% for those between ages of 18 and 39.
  • Substance Use – CAMH found that about 25% surveyed indicated binge drinking in the previous week (November) and MHRC found that about 30-34% have increased their cannabis consumption. Accordingly, the number of opioid/illicit drug deaths rose significantly during the peak months of the pandemic.
  • Suicidal Thoughts – CMHA reports that suicidal thoughts increased from 6.4% in May to 10% in October (compared to 2.5% of the population noted by Stats Can in 2019). Numbers are higher for vulnerable and marginalized individuals (e.g. those with pre-existing conditions, Indigenous people, and LGBTQ+ members).

Mental Health Impact on Workers

In addition to the more general statistics noted above, a survey released this month by Morneau Shepell, focusing on employees, found that the mental health index for Canadian workers reached a new low in December of 2020, down for the ninth month in a row. According to this monthly index survey, 36% of working Canadians said they were concerned about a co-worker’s mental health.

An earlier survey (October, 2020), conducted by Leger, found that while 54% of Canadians noted their mental health and stress levels as being about the same as during COVID-19’s first wave, 24% reported it being worse this time around. This survey also showed that women, particularly those aged 18-34, in addition to single parents, were more likely to report their mental health as bad or very bad.

While we hope that, in part, care for your employees drives your culture/practices in supporting their mental wellness, also consider that “brand loyalty” is negatively impacted by not doing what you reasonably can and/or not following safety protocol/treating employees well. Morneau Shepell noted that these factors have significantly impacted the purchasing/service decisions of between 57 and 63% of survey participants during the pandemic – choices that could, and likely will, have a long-term impact.

All of the above realities are further impacted by what the CMHA is calling “unprecedented waitlists” for various mental health supports. All the more reason why employers must act to provide support.

What Can/Should Employers Do to Support Their Employees?

Appreciating that every workplace/employer will differ in terms of what they can reasonably provide (e.g.  due to financial or flexibility constraints), there are a number of options that can be addressed immediately.  

  • EAP – Put in place and/or review your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP) and ensure it meets the needs of your employees. Keep in mind that most are general in nature and are intended to address high-level issues with referrals to more specific providers if/when needed, i.e. they are generally not equipped to deal with very serious issues and/or the unique concerns of marginalized individuals.
  • Group Benefits – Consider increasing the annual allowance for psychological supports such as counselling, if only temporarily. Some organizations offset this by reducing the amounts of other lesser used paramedical services.
  • Check-Ins – In addition to your regular team meetings, check in on a one-to-one basis with all employees regularly and genuinely. For those who appear “off,” “not their usual self”, and/or are otherwise exhibiting significant or ongoing changes in behaviour, demeanour, or performance, check in immediately, and check in often. While your employees may choose not to share what’s going on for them, don’t make assumptions that they don’t need the help.
  • Non-Remote Connection – Appreciating the challenges for many workplaces, be innovative with ways to connect and provide options for those employees who truly need the social aspect of being at work. This may include rotating onsite options, walking outdoor meetings, etc.
  • Facilitating Balance – Many employers are/were concerned about their employees being less productive working from home, when, in fact, many have been more productive. In either case, however, it’s important to look at why. In the case of being more productive, are they working a lot of extra time, or at all hours of the day/night – either because it’s easier to work a lot, or they’re making do with less team support, or they’re fearing for their job/trying to support the company in difficult times? While working from home can certainly help support balance and flexibility, without setting clear parameters, there can be a blurring of lines between work life and personal life. While all employees will differ in this regard, employers can support by facilitating dialogue/having honest conversations where employees can share their challenges and what’s worked for them. This will also support healthy and sustainable increases in productivity, rather than leading to burn-out.
  • Taking Vacation – Related to the above is the importance of ensuring employees take their vacation. While many employers loosened their max carry-over policies in this area in 2020 due to travel restrictions, in addition to financial liability for the organization, doing so impacts both the mental and physical health of employees. Taking time away from work is critical for that and travelling is by no means the only way employees can rest and rejuvenate while on vacation.
  • ‘Normalize’ It – As an employer/leadership team, make it okay to talk about challenges you’re having – observing appropriate confidentiality and privacy, of course. While it’s not recommended that leaders/managers get into details about significant trauma/experiences, they can and should be clear that they, like everyone, struggle with the same things that employees struggle with, particularly with the pandemic being a factor.
  • Model Healthy Actions – Leaders and managers can be great role models for self-care practices. This might include scheduling walks, breaks, and/or workouts, etc. during the day and being up-front and open with teams about that time/encouraging the same. It could include group virtual events like meditation, yoga, or fitness classes during the workday. It might mean not sending emails at all hours of the day (and thus, not unintentionally setting the expectation that employees read/respond at all hours). It should certainly include setting an example by taking vacation, so long as employees aren’t prevented from doing so as a result.

As Dr. David Dozois, a professor of psychology at Western University and a member of MHRC’s Board of Directors indicated, “the pandemic has been a recipe for mental health issues”. Accordingly, Stephen Liptrap, President and CEO of Morneau Shepell, stated: “Our collective mental health is at significant risk. It has never been more critical to make a conscious effort to support ourselves and each other and for employers to emphasize mental health and physical health equally in order to ensure employees feel heard and supported as the pandemic continues.”

We don’t need more evidence to know that the pandemic has had and increasingly continues to take a significant toll on the mental wellness of Canadians. With mental health practitioners being stretched to their own limits, the availability of many supports is severely limited. This speaks to the critical importance of employers making the mental health and wellness of their employees a very high priority. Not only does this show care, but it’s necessary to ensure employee retention and business sustainability.