Pandemic punishes Canada’s mental health index

For a lot of working adults, this summer was supposed to be the beginning of the end — of dread and isolation, of all-consuming changes, of deteriorating wellness — as the dire straits caused by COVID-19 were expected to unwind.

Yet, new numbers shared exclusively with the Free Press reveal a renewed state of uncertainty is causing Canadians’ mental health and well-being to only further worsen.

Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research at LifeWorks.

“It’s the consequence of a series of massive, unexpected changes that keep piling on,” said Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research at LifeWorks, in an interview Tuesday.

“Even though things were thought to go back to normal right about now, we’re actually getting closer to another set of changes. There’s a transition waiting to happen about our return back to work, and many of us aren’t feeling ready. In fact, there’s exceeding apprehension.”

Through polling conducted in June, Allen’s global solutions firm LifeWorks found the mental health index for Canada is down by almost 11 points compared to pre-pandemic benchmarks. That means 68 per cent of Canadians are having significant difficulties; and are at risk of depression (up 12.7 points), anxiety (12.5 points), low work productivity (12.6 points) and plunging optimism (9.9 points).

Those figures are representative of 3,000 people polled from coast to coast, that are currently employed or who were employed in the past six months. Participants were selected to be representative of the age, gender, industry and geographic distribution across the country.

“What we’re seeing is a visceral impact of something that still feels beyond our control,” said Allen. “It’s possibly why when control is seemingly being taken away again, after we’ve finally gotten used to things, people are feeling those trigger points and stress.”

While many organizations have begun developing return-to-workplace strategies, the research suggests, a significant portion of people require clearer communication on office reopening plans. Not doing so is causing an impact on their mental health.

One-quarter of Canadians are unclear of their employer’s plan for work, while another 12 per cent do not believe that their employer has a plan. These groups reported the lowest mental-health scores, when compared to workers who’ve been provided clearer guidelines.

More than one-third (38 per cent) expect their employer will want all workers back in their pre-pandemic environment; 17 per cent believe their employer will allow remote work to continue; 14 per cent expect to work on-site at their office, at least part of the time; and only six per cent expect to have the flexibility to choose their work location.

“But what’s really interesting is the way our vaccination rates impact our mental health,” said Allen. “When we looked at those figures, it became obvious that the more control we get back in our life with vaccines, the better our optimism rates and mental health is.”

According to the data, Canadians who are partially vaccinated have the lowest dip in the mental health index at 9.3 points, compared to pre-pandemic benchmarks.

That’s followed by people who are not vaccinated and do not intend to be (at 12.5 points); those who are fully vaccinated (13.4 points); and at the lowest end, people who are not vaccinated but intend to be (at 15.7 points).

“At the end of the day, these are the slightest improvements,” said Allen. “Governments and employers need to be cautious and supportive, especially for the next pivotal months.

“Our situation is fragile and if we don’t keep our mental health in check, these challenges will go a lot further beyond COVID-19.”

Twitter: @temurdur

Temur Durrani

Temur Durrani

Temur Durrani reports on the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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