As Ontario looks to curb virus cases amid the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, many workers adjusting to another round of COVID-related restrictions feel the changes are taking a toll on their mental health.
“From surveys we are doing right now, about 50 per cent of respondents say the pandemic has worsened their mental health,” said Margaret Eaton, national chief executive officer of the Canadian Mental Health Association, in an interview.
“If anything, anxiety levels are worse right now during Omicron because many people are falling ill and they’re worried about their own health, the health of their loved ones and on top of that children out of school again.”
The Ontario government rolled out another round of sweeping restrictions that took effect on Wednesday that require businesses to have staff work from home unless they have to be on-site to do their job.
The changes included slashing retail capacity in half, limiting restaurants to takeout only, and moving schools back to online learning.
“People thought we were heading back towards normal before these restrictions hit and I think now is the time for us to start revisiting that mental health push we had at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Dr. Donna Ferguson, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, in an interview.
“Business leaders need to step up and continue this momentum. Some ways we’ve become complacent and settled into the pandemic for better or for worse, so now’s the time to get back into the mental health narrative.”
As many Canadians tap into their workplace mental health programs during the pandemic, some companies are hiring more staff to assist with the rising need for those services.
“We typically see a spike in mental health cases in January due to post-holiday stressors. With an added layer of the pandemic and the latest restrictions in many jurisdictions, we expect more people will seek support in the coming days and weeks,” said Stephen Liptrap, president and chief executive officer of LifeWorks, in an email.
“As such, we are continuing to hire more care access centre and clinical staff members to meet Canadians’ needs through their employee and family assistance programs.”
But addressing employees’ mental health isn’t just about workplace benefits. Eaton said there are many different ways companies can support their workers’ wellbeing in day-to-day activities.
She explained companies can section off one day each week where they don’t schedule meetings, allow workers to turn their cameras off during a call, or allow employees to take a half-day off to take care of their kids who are attending school virtually at home.
“It’s on the employer to create the workplace conditions for mental health and wellness, we can’t just treat this like we’re just going back into another lockdown. We’re really worried about worker burnout this time if there’s not a balance.” Eaton said.
Some experts said since the traditional work routine has changed during the pandemic, companies need to change the way they support workers’ mental health.
“It’s essential that businesses focus on the accessibility of their mental health programs because more people are remote and they need to make it easier to access those programs or to talk to someone,” Ferguson said.
“I think we just really need businesses to start paying more attention to what’s going on even when people might seem good and checking in more with workers’ mental health.”