Everything you need to know about how employees are coping

A comprehensive report from LifeWorks details the mental health of staff and their preferences for future working models.

finn-nJupV3AOP-U-unsplash (2)By Will Novosedlik

Everyone these days is trying to figure out what the post-pandemic world of work is going to look like. There is still a significant measure of doubt because the term “post-pandemic” may itself be an inaccurate descriptor of the world we will inhabit in the short-to-mid-term. It’s becoming clear that COVID may never fully go away, which means the future is very likely going to embody various accommodations of it.

LifeWorks – formerly known as Morneau-Shepell and which bills itself as “a leading provider of digital and in-person total wellbeing solutions” – has been attempting to gauge our mental health in the face of this uncertainty. Last week, the firm released its Mental Health Index (MHI) for December 2021. The MHI was introduced by LifeWorks in the first month of the pandemic and has been gathering data from Canadian employers and employees for the 21 months since.

The first thing to understand (no surprise) is that, among those surveyed, there is a high level of mental health risk. The mental health score for Canadians has been negative for 21 consecutive months. Sub-scores for depression, isolation and anxiety are well below the pre-pandemic benchmarks. This is obviously something that business leaders need to know to adjust their expectations when establishing performance targets for their employees. It’s difficult enough to hit targets in normal times, but the sustained stress of a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis adds a whole new dimension to the challenge of planning, execution and support.

This may be why flexibility was one of the more significant survey topics. Knowledge workers have discovered the unforeseen benefits of working from home – or anywhere else they choose. Now that the genie is out of that bottle, there’s no putting it back in. But there are many different levers that employers can pull.

For 38% of Canadians, the option of full flexibility of days, hours and location of work was the most desirable working model, while 17% preferred that everyone be in the office and 15% preferred to work fully remotely. Flexibility around just the hours of work was deemed the most important factor by 26% of respondents, while flexibility around location was most important to 24%. But for 29%, the most important, by far, was the ability to step away from work to attend to personal matters.

How leaders are perceived by employees raised some interesting questions. Fifty percent of Canadians believe that their CEO genuinely cares about their wellbeing, while 18% believe the opposite, and 32% are uncertain about how empathetic their CEO is. Predictably, managers are 30% more likely than non-managers to believe that their CEO genuinely cares about employee well-being. All this means that half of employees surveyed are at greater risk of reduced mental health. It also means that leaders not only need to prioritize listening, but also to be demonstrably supportive of employee wellbeing.

According to LifeWorks’ SVP research and wellbeing, Paula Allen, “We have seen such a positive impact when leaders are visible in their support. A positive view of the use of mental health services and communications that come directly from leaders will ensure that employees feel valued and appreciated and that their wellbeing is top of mind for their employer.”

How different people are experiencing pandemic stress was not surprising. Women are feeling it more than men, adults with children more than adults without, and young people more than older people. People at the low end of the income scale are more stressed than those at the higher end, and self-employed or sole proprietors a more stress-free than everyone else. It seems that the bigger the company, the lower the level of mental health. And managers are feeling it more than non-managers. Again, no surprises here. It’s not that these conditions were caused by the pandemic; indeed, they were there long before it. The pandemic has just made them worse.

There are some useful statistics regarding the comparative mental stress across industries. The hardest hit industries include arts, entertainment and recreation; full time students; mining, oil and gas extraction; health care and social assistance; and at rock bottom, by a considerable margin, is information and cultural industries. That means me, you and most of the people reading this article.

While this study tracks how we’re feeling about work, it doesn’t address what Canadians are doing about it. For that you need to look at examples like Linkedin’s Workforce Confidence Index, which examines “The Great Reshuffle,” or the trend of job seekers looking to change industries. While compensation is at the top of the list of reasons for doing so (52% surveyed), it’s closely followed by alignment with interests or values (49%) and the chance to move up or increase responsibilities (44%). In the LifeWorks study, these people would be the most mentally healthy. Since this likely represents the most ambitious members of the workforce, they are the folks that employers would most like to retain.

Both surveys suggest that for employers, there’s work to be done.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash