Landing in the emergency room in the middle of the night was a wake-up call for Margaret Eaton.

She started a new job as the Canadian Mental Health Association’s national chief executive officer in January 2020. Then, about two months into her new gig, the coronavirus pandemic hit. As the pandemic’s finish line kept moving further and further away she tried harder and harder. By August 2020, she hit a wall. Hard. “It was just a lot,” says Eaton of the pandemic’s early days. “And part of it was I thought it was a sprint and it became a marathon.”

Read: Bell Let’s Talk Day: Employers supporting staff amid pandemic stresses

When Eaton was in the ER due to excruciating back pain she was told she might be a candidate for surgery. Her body had been screaming at her to take stock and she finally listened. She did some research and reflection and came to the realization that her back pain was exacerbated by the stress of starting a new job in a pandemic. Eaton signed up for a virtual therapy group, which was paid for in part by her workplace wellness account, and was soon on the road to recovery.

Darkness descends

It’s now 23 months (and counting) since the World Health Organization first declared a global pandemic and, like Eaton, many Canadians have struggled to cope with everything from yet another new variant to remote working to homeschooling children.

In parallel to pandemic-related stresses, there are several other seismic events to deal with, including climate change, the murder of George Floyd and persistent inflation. Taken all together, a low-wattage stress is buzzing in the background of many people’s daily lives with a direct impact on their mental health.

LifeWorks Inc. has been tracking employee mental health since the beginning of the pandemic. When measured against a benchmark of data collected pre-pandemic, from 2017-2019, the picture that has emerged is dark. The stark numbers in the chart (above) show Canadian workers’ mental health has stayed stubbornly low since the start of the ongoing crisis.

“The decline at the beginning of the pandemic was quite unbelievable,” says Paula Allen, the organization’s senior vice-president and global leader of research and total well-being. “It really was more than what was expected and we’re seeing a bit of an improvement, particularly when it comes to optimism, but it’s not steady improvement.”

Read: 81% of Canadians say coronavirus is negatively affecting their mental health: survey

That lack of improvement is leading some employees to quit or consider leaving their jobs. Those employees who haven’t left their employers are often feeling exhausted and on edge, with some experiencing “life-changing” mental-health issues, notes Allen. LifeWorks analyzed its monthly index results and placed people into buckets of low, moderate and high risk of developing mental-health issues, finding that, while 13 per cent of employees were considered high risk in 2019, that figure has almost tripled to 34 per cent during the pandemic.

“When you’re in that high-risk category, the likelihood of developing a clinical disorder is significant and the likelihood of having some life disruption is pretty much 100 per cent. And when people get to the high-risk category, they don’t slip in and out of it — it’s life-changing and there are supports needed to reduce those risks.”

Bright ideas

For employees who are struggling emotionally, it can be challenging to put one foot in front of the other as the pandemic drags on.

Throughout this long and circuitous pandemic journey, Corus Entertainment Inc. has focused on supporting employee’s emotional, financial, mental, physical and social wellness. Early on, it concentrated on emotional wellness with consistent communications about its employee assistance program, as well as efforts such as five-minute videos called Five to Thrive that focused on helping employees build skills such as resilience.

By the numbers

• 25% of Canadians aged 18 and older screened positive for symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD in the spring of 2021, up from 21% in the fall of 2020, according to Statistics Canada.

• 24% of Canadians said work hinders their mental health and 11% said their experiences with their managers haven’t been positive since the pandemic began, according to LifeWorks’ October 2021 mental-health index.

• 22% of Canadian employees who don’t have mental-health services offered by their employer said they want that benefits offering, while 36% who don’t have an EAP said they want their employer to provide one, according to a survey by the Conference Board of Canada and Telus Health.

Corus’ leaders also took a long look at its benefits offerings, debating whether to increase the coverage for mental-health benefits for its unionized and non-unionized staff. At some point, it broached the question of why there was a cap at all. Ultimately, the answer was that the old way of looking at mental health no longer applied in this new normal.

Read: How the City of Toronto is supporting employee mental health in 2022 and beyond

“For 2021 as an extraordinary reaction to the situation everyone was in, the annual cap was removed for non-union and for unionized folks, which was kind of an extraordinary thing to do because it wasn’t a bargained change,” says Cheryl Fullerton, executive vice-president of people and communications at Corus. “The [chief executive officer] and [chief financial officer] were champions [of this], saying, ‘We want our people to be well and get whatever support and care they need. What friction stands in the way of them getting that?’ And cost is a very real friction point.”

Ultimately, the removal of the cap was made permanent for both union and non-union employees and the result of that big decision has been eye-opening for Fullerton and Corus’ leadership. Employees who had already been receiving help with mental-health issues sought out more support after the cap was lifted and “many more people” than expected received treatment for the first time through their benefits plan once the cap was removed.

Glimmers of hope

While some employees require long-term therapy with a mental-health professional, many others just need a little support to keep going through these tumultuous times.

Since March 2020, virtual health-care provider Dialogue has seen a significant uptick in patients using their services for mental-health issues. Pre-pandemic, mental health was about 10 per cent of cases, says Dr. Marc Robin, the organization’s medical director, but it has now tripled to more than 30 per cent.

In general, he says about 30 per cent of Dialogue’s patients have mild mental-health symptoms, while roughly 40 per cent have moderate issues and the remaining 30 per cent have severe mental-health symptoms. He advises employers to offer a range of mental-health coverage and services from psychologists to therapists to internet-based cognitive behavioural therapy, so employees can get the right treatment for them at the right time.

Read: 82% of Canadian workers think employers should provide virtual health-care services for employees: survey

While many Canadians are struggling with their mental health during the pandemic, the good news is those with mild issues only needed an average of 2.3 sessions with a mental-health professional via Dialogue before self-reporting they were back to functioning, says Robin.

There are several reasons why employees are struggling emotionally, but work-related issues are often the No. 1 or No. 2 reason, he notes, adding it’s important for employees to know their employer cares about their mental health. “The impact of persistent psychological stress can have a long-lasting effect on the workforce. . . . Caring is just the beginning.”

Talking openly about mental health is a good start that should be backed up by tangible actions, such as offering employees an array of mental-health benefits and supports, adds Robin.

For Eaton, the support of virtual group therapy was enough to get her back on track.

A lot of low-cost or free resources are available for employers to support staff through this stressful time, she adds. The CMHA, for example, aims for no-meetings Fridays and also books off the first hour of everyone’s work day so they can plan and prepare. It also closed the office completely for a week last August to let employees take a breath before the start of the busy fall season.

Read: Twitter’s monthly #DaysofRest initiative helping prevent employee burnout amid pandemic

“I found it very restful,” says Eaton. “It was very good, especially when the weather was good to enjoy being outside before the winter started, as I found the winter very tough last year.”

Since early 2020, other employers, such as Bumble Inc., Hootsuite Inc. and Twitter Inc., have also introduced short company-wide shutdowns to help employees unwind and disconnect from work. As workers trudge through another coronavirus-era winter and face down the two-year anniversary of the start of the global pandemic, she notes little things like Zoom-free days are easy ways to help take the edge off for employees.

Preparing for the dawn of new era

While both employers and employees have made it through many ups and downs so far, there are likely still some steep hills to climb ahead. With a range of experiences, from warehouse workers who’ve had a colleague die of the coronavirus to remote workers who’ve been able to work from the safety of their homes for almost two years, Canadians are experiencing a wide range of long-term impacts.

Key takeaways

• Almost two years into the pandemic, many employees continue to struggle with mental-health issues.

• Employers have a significant role to play in helping employees deal with the emotional impact of living through this once-in-a-century crisis.

• The long-term impacts of the pandemic are unknown, but employers should plan to continue their supports for workers via benefits offerings and HR initiatives long after the pandemic ends.

“We might still see high rates of anxiety and depression. We don’t yet know what the long-term impact will be,” says Liz Horvath, manager of workplace mental health at the Mental Health Commission of Canada. “It’s anticipated we might see an increase in post-traumatic stress disorders [post-pandemic], so it’s going to be important for employers to link employees with benefits and services that are available through their company and their community.”

Read: Hootsuite supporting employee mental health with additional week off

Corus is already preparing for the post-pandemic future under the assumption that the end of the pandemic won’t mean the end of employees struggling with their mental health. While some of its employees never left the office, such as those in its news divisions, one way it’s aiming to support employee wellness is by taking a flexible approach to what the future of work will look like.

“We’re giving choice to people. They are being spoken to by their managers because that autonomy and that sense of control has such a link to health and well-being,” says Fullerton of Corus’ return-to-office plans. “It will be a mix, but it’s not a ‘thou shall all work remote, thou shall work at the office, thou shall work hybrid.’ . . . We hope this approach will work for more people, but it will be different — we’ll learn. One of our values is to learn every day and that’s the whole motto with this — we’re going to learn, we’re going to figure out what works, what doesn’t work and we’re going to adjust.”

Both employers and employees have had to constantly learn and adjust since the beginning of this crisis, including Eaton.

She still has some back pain, but she’s no longer a candidate for back surgery as she’s learned to listen when her body tells her to slow down. Just as her night in the ER served as a personal wake-up call, the pandemic has woken up many employers across Canada to the importance of openly and consistently helping employees deal with mental-health issues in 2022 and beyond.

Read: Employers should back up mental-health talk with benefits, HR policies: experts

“I’ve been pleased to see a much heightened awareness about mental health and how it affects people in the workplace,” says Eaton. “And I’ve been pleased to see a heightened empathy for people’s mental health and mental illnesses. . . . The mental-health impacts may go on long after we’ve gotten control of the physical issues around COVID and employers need to [support those] who are struggling and try to create that psychologically safe space where people feel they can express their worries and fears and that those will be listened to and responded to and accommodated.”

Melissa Dunne is the managing editor of Benefits Canada.