Many workers avoiding interactions, leading to mental health declines

Pandemic isolation 'became a habit… that will erode our wellbeing'

Many workers avoiding interactions, leading to mental health declines

The pandemic lead to a forced isolation for many Canadians – and despite improved conditions, that trend continues, judging by a recent survey.

Nearly one-third (32 per cent) of respondents say they avoid being with or interacting with others, and this group has the lowest mental health score (51.3), more than 13 points below the national average (64.8), according to the latest Mental Health Index by TELUS Health, formerly LifeWorks.

On the other hand, more than half (52 per cent) of respondents do not avoid being with or interacting with others, and this group has the highest mental health score (74.8), 10 points above the national average.

“We’ve been seeing greater isolation in this report. We’re seeing that a third of working Canadians are actually avoiding interaction,” says Paula Allen, global leader, research and total wellbeing at TELUS Health in Toronto.

“We had the pandemic isolation forced upon us but then a lot of that behaviour became a habit and we’re avoiding that contact… that will definitely erode our mental health and wellbeing.”

The index was compiled after hearing from 3,000 persons through an online survey between Jan. 17 and Jan. 24.

Isolated work

More than three in five (62 per cent) of respondents say their avoidance started or worsened since the pandemic began, and this group has the lowest mental health score (48.4), more than 16 points below the national average (64.8)

More than one in five (21 per cent) often have difficulty controlling their emotions, and this group has the lowest mental health score (45.2), nearly 20 points below the national average (64.8).

“Whether we’re working together in the same place, or whether we’re working in different places, relationships still matter. What happens very often is when people work hybrid or remote, they’re very transactional: they get the job done, they have the meeting, and then they go on. There’s no relationships built; there’s no culture that’s built; there’s no support,” says Allen.

However, nearly one-third (30 per cent) cannot work flexibly, and this group has the lowest mental health score (62.3) more than two points below the national average (64.8).

More than one-third (35 per cent) can work flexibly mostly or all the time, and this group has the highest mental health score (69.0).

Importance of being intentional

Organizational leaders need to address this situation, says Allen.

“We need to be more intentional — whether we’re in-person or not in-person — to make sure that we’re recognizing other people as human beings. Sometimes we forget the other person’s point of view might be a means to an end… but investing in those relationships will ultimately help the productivity of your workforce overall.”

Because of all the stressors being reported in the index, some health habits are changing: 63 per cent have cut back on discretionary spending, mainly due to the number-one concern: inflation.

“We don’t just have a pandemic to deal with, we’ve had a lot of things to deal with: pandemic, war and now inflation,” says Allen, citing one in five respondents cutting back on things that support their health and wellbeing — including seven per cent who are cutting back on prescription medications.

“When we’re looking at the connection between financial wellbeing and mental health, definitely just having emergency savings and having that cushion is important. And we know that that’s been eroded with inflation. But when people are making hard decisions, they are getting to the point where they’re making decisions that will compromise their long-term health.”

Trust in workplaces is declining, found another recent TELUS Health report and this is having a negative effect on mental health.

What’s available for mental health?

For HR professionals, now is a good time to go over what is on hand in the benefits package, to help workers know that important health spending does not have to be curtailed, she says.

“Not everybody understands what’s available from their employer: they might have heard about it and might have not recognized the value when they first started to work but it’s important for employers to communicate what’s available,” says Allen.

“If they were aware of what was available to them, many people wouldn’t cut back.”

It also would help for HR professionals to reach out to providers to get the full scope of what is available.

“I would encourage each and every employer to talk to their EAP provider, to talk to their benefits provider because there’s often more things in the works that can be made available, there’s more strategies. Because in our organization, we’re thinking constantly about how we can do more and when we have the conversations with employers, they’re very happily surprised that their existing relationships can give them that extra value that’s so important right now,” she says.

Less than 40 per cent of HR professionals believe they adequately support the mental health of employees, found another survey.

Keeping leaders healthy

The report also shines a light on the mental health of managers, who are on par or slightly below the mental health of non-managers, says Allen.

“Generally, managers tend to be a little bit older, they own good problem-solving skills, and might have access or awareness of resources but we saw a big flip at the beginning of the pandemic, and with all the extra responsibility and uncertainty of managers, their mental health was actually lower for most of the pandemic and even now, we haven’t really gotten back to where it was before.”

“We are still going through this time of uncertainty and there’s a lot going on but managers need to be equipped with having the right conversations and the right tools. Four out of five managers have had to deal with a mental health issue of an employee over the past 12 months so just having that skill to deal with all the challenges that are facing them is something that I think employers need to pay attention to.”

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