As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change the nature of the workplace, Canadians now working from home are being forced to consider how never leaving the office could be a detriment to their mental health.

The shutdown that has forced many employees to stay put and do their jobs remotely is erasing the divisions between work and their personal lives.

"We kept this wall between home and our work life and we tried to pretend that neither existed when we're on our different spaces, but now that's all gone," David Zweig, associate professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management at the University of Toronto, told BNN Bloomberg in a phone interview.

This lack of a healthy work-life balance could be helping fuel Canadians’ mounting anxieties surrounding the COVID-19 crisis and its ripple effect on their finances. Jordan Friesen, national director for workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association says long work hours and the stress surrounding the pandemic are inextricably linked.

"Based on the data, the amount of hours people are putting into work certainly seems unsustainable,” he said in a phone interview. “From my perspective, it certainly could contribute to issues of burnout."

According to a recent study by the Angus Reid Institute, half of Canadians say their mental health has worsened since the pandemic began. And earlier this month, Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index recorded a 16-per-cent drop in Canadians’ mental health from pre-COVID-19 levels.

But the impacts of burnout extend beyond employees’ personal lives, according to Christopher Pigott, labour law partner at Fasken.

"The consequences for employers and employees can range from everything from a feeling of unhappiness on the part of employees, to more serious mental health issues, to productivity issues and operational issues for employers, to legal consequences associated with the breach of labour employment laws," Pigott said in a phone interview.

So what can companies do to prevent burnout? Zweig says the most important thing is for leaders to set the tone and create structure to help re-establish some balance.

“It's important as a leader to say, ‘look we're going to set up some norms for how we do work. I don't want people to be spending 12 hours of the day trying to be online and work. I don't want people sending emails at all hours of the night, especially if it's something that can wait until the next day,'” Zweig said.

Company actions

In light of the pandemic, storytelling platform company Wattpad Corp. has made work hours more flexible and are even encouraging employees to compress their work week to four days if they need to. They've created Slack channels for teams to openly share their experiences working from home and are also reimbursing staff for any equipment or office furniture that can improve their comfort and productivity. 

Communicating with employees to provide them with a feeling of support and organizing social occasions such as conference calls or cocktail hours on Zoom can also help improve morale, Pigott said.

"These are all outreach techniques that perhaps don't seem like a huge deal but that can have a huge impact," he said. 

Online investment management firm WealthSimple Inc. said in an email it’s encouraging workers to make "switching off" an event. Among other measures, the Toronto-based company is recommending employees put time on their calendar for lunch and for teams to book a social hour at the end of the day.

It’s also ensuring its leaders hold – among other things – regular one-on-one meetings, daily virtual stand-ups and social events. Ninety-nine per cent of WealthSimple employees are currently working from home due to COVID-19, the company said.

Shopify Inc., which has all of its employees currently working remotely, said it’s hosting weekly town halls and that it’s given workers a $1,000 allowance to purchase the supplies they need set up their workspace.

Friesen recommends for management to explicitly say they expect some variation in employees’ routines as they deal with their daily home responsibilities

"If somebody is working at home and their kids are at home right now, it may be completely unrealistic to work from nine to five,” Friesen said. “It may be in fact be easier to work in two-hour periods during the day."

As for how things will pan out after the pandemic is over, Zweig is optimistic this experience will change businesses’ perceptions on how the workplace should be run.

“When we come out of this, there's going to be more of an appreciation of people's situations outside of work,” he said. “And hopefully better tolerance and understanding that we all have lives outside of work and that we're all struggling to manage them.”