https://www.thestar.com/business/2022/07/26/from-covid-to-the-economy-the-mental-health-of-canadians-is-at-a-breaking-point.html

First, it was the pandemic. Today, it’s the rising cost of living.

Canadians just can’t seem to catch a break. And now, many are at a breaking point.

Working professionals are experiencing increased strain on their emotional well-being, according to a major report released Thursday, which found that the mental health of Canadians in June was at its lowest levels since the height of the Omicron wave in January.

Though employees are returning to the office and COVID-19 concerns are waning for some, inflation pressures continue to impact workers and their families, with experts warning that employers are not doing nearly enough to protect their employees from mental burnout.

“Some HR departments will develop superficial wellness initiatives — but it’s just window-dressing,” said Catherine Connelly, a Canada Research Chair and human resources and management professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business. “What the findings show is we need to have a fundamental look at the workplace.”

LifeWorks, a human resources services and technology company, surveyed 3,000 working professionals across Canada and found that overall mental-health scores saw a precipitous drop in June — down 0.8 points (out of 100) from the previous month — the most significant decrease since January.

Nearly three in four Canadians reported feeling some impact of personal or work stress, according to the latest findings. All mental health subscores declined between May and June, with anxiety and financial stability scores seeing the greatest decrease, down 1.2 points from the previous month.

“We’ve had a big change over the last short while with the economic situation,” said Paula Allen, senior vice-president of research and total well-being at LifeWorks. “We’ve had more uncertainty and anxiety in our lives, and that seems to be the big factor that made the difference in last month’s drop.”

Though Canadians’ mental health had been improving for four straight months before the dip in June, indicators are still significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels. The benchmark, based on mental-health data from 2017, 2018 and 2019, is 75 points. The index score fell by 12 points at the beginning of the pandemic to 63 per cent. In 2022, the figures have hovered around 64 points.

“We really haven’t improved significantly since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Allen. “We’ve just gone through different stages.”

While the pandemic was the driving force behind the decline in mental health in 2020 and 2021, factors such as economic uncertainty, increased gun violence, political anger and cynicism have continued to suppress scores in 2022, Allen said.

For young working professionals, the last two years have been particularly trying. In March 2020, COVID-19 threw a wrench in the early careers of many millennials. And now, emerging from the pandemic, they are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the post-pandemic economic instability.

Esther Lee has reached a breaking point. The 29-year-old Toronto social worker found the pressures from the last two years unrelenting.

Lee worked with victims of sexual assault on a daily basis, but says her employer failed to provide adequate support for her and her colleagues, many of whom felt uncomfortable discussing their mental-health struggles with senior managers.

“Zero — there was no support,” Lee says.

And then in mid-July, amid staffing changes at her company, she lost her job.

Now unemployed, Lee worries she’ll be forced to move out of her one-bedroom apartment in midtown Toronto due to the rising rent costs.

“Even with a full-time job, above minimum wage, I was barely making enough to sustain my life alone, with a cat,” she said.

There has been much discussion, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, about workplace mental health and work-life balance. Though those conversations have destigmatized mental-health issues, Connelly said there hasn’t been much significant change in workplace policy over the past two years.

According to the LifeWorks report, only 44 per cent of Canadian workers felt their mental well-being was supported by their employer during the pandemic.

Connelly believes many mental-health policies currently in place do not go far enough to adequately support workers. Though most benefit packages include $400 to $500 for psychological counselling, the hourly rate for such services is about $200, she highlighted as an example.

“You would expect somebody to need about 12 sessions,” she said. “So though the fact employees have the benefits is good, but that alone is not going to be enough.”

Katharine Coons, national senior manager of workplace mental health at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s national office, said many organizations simply don’t know how to develop adequate policies or provide mental-health training and resources to their employees.

However, she’s optimistic companies will begin to develop strong policies in the months ahead, noting organizations are now at a “crossroads” on how they’re going to respond to the need of their employees.

Genuine workplace policies on mental health and well-being are now requisites for companies to succeed as more workers are demanding their employers to step up, Coons said.

“The companies that take care of the psychological health and safety of their employees and put into place programs and policies will be the ones that are going to come out on top, whether that’s through recruitment, retention or productivity.”

Joshua Chong is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Reach Joshua via email: jchong@torstar.ca