Omicron variant set to impact employee mental health

New research also finds high levels of tension in utilities, food service and agriculture industries

Omicron variant set to impact employee mental health

At this point, we all know about the negative impacts of the pandemic on employee mental health.

With the advent of the new Omicron variant it is likely that mental health issues will only further be exacerbated as we wrap up 2021 and get ready for 2022.

“Most likely it will [be exacerbated],” says Paula Allen. “We definitely saw an impact with Delta.”

Allen is Global Leader and Senior Vice President, Research and Total Wellbeing, at LifeWorks.

Recently, with cases going down over the summer, Canadians were feeling more hopeful. Now with this new variant, Canadians are once again faced with uncertainty as they approach the holiday season.

Speaking about what they saw during the advent of the Delta variant, Allen says:

“All of a sudden, this new variant [appears] and is much more deadly and contagious. We saw that figures in uncertainty increased and optimism decreased.”

As of yet, due to how novel the variant is, Allen says that LifeWorks doesn’t have any data right now but they will soon enough as they collect data on a monthly basis to “see the impact” of how Canadians are feeling today compared to last month prior to the discovery of Omicron.

“But even before Omicron, we actually saw a wane [in optimism] a bit. People were starting to feel that life is different and will be for a while,” says Allen, which dampened spirits.

On the opposite side of things, Allen says that introducing vaccines and having them mandated seems to have increased optimism. She explains that it made people feel more in control.

Astonishing decline

A recent report from LifeWorks has revealed a number of key insights into Canadians’ mental health amid the pandemic.

LifeWorks actually started collecting data for the Mental Health Index in 2017.

Thus, they were able to get a clear picture of mental health among Canadians before and after the pandemic:

“What we found is an astonishing decline in the mental health of the working population. We expected, with all the upheaval, that there would be some decline but it was actually much more than we anticipated,” says Allen.

And she says that they found a decline across the board:

“We really saw more than doubling of people in high risk of mental issues,” she says, “and an increase in the level of tension and mental stress in the rest of the population. From a statistical point of view, nobody was untouched.”

This is a very big deal, says Allen, because the decline also resulted in a decline in work productivity:

“People were working more hours, there were less of those buffers that actually keep us healthy between one task and another task. Longer hours, increased intensity – that’s where we had as false assumption that productivity was going up. But actually, the level of productivity within each hour had been diminished because people were under stain and distracted.”

Change and unpredictability

Industries where there were financial vulnerabilities were more impacted than others, such as accommodation and food service (-15.3 on the Mental Health Index). LifeWorks also found low scores in the utilities sector (-12.6), in arts, entertainment and recreation (-14.6) and in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting (-12.5).

“These are industries that were largely shut down during the pandemic and demonstrated huge levels of uncertainty about when things would go back to the way they were.

Yes, there was public support in terms of finances but generally for many not as much, and you’re still feeling that sense of purpose and meaning when you’re receiving finances and not actually in your role,” says Allen.

In addition, mental health issues evolved alongside the pandemic. In the beginning, there was a lot of anxiety and depression:

“It goes back to that sense of change and unpredictability that really triggered a number of things,” she says. “Anybody who had any kind of mental health issue that they were already dealing with, it got a lot worse.”

As the pandemic progressed, Allen says that many more people were in crisis.

“We had a lot of people who didn’t really have significant mental health issues all of sudden developing concerns.”

As we went from the crisis stage to seeing the pandemic as a more long-lasting event, people started feeling burned out and emotionally exhausted.

Additionally, Allen highlights that LifeWorks also saw an increase in risky drinking behaviour from 2 per cent prior to the pandemic to 8 per cent of the working population right now.


Allen says that her number one recommendation for employers is to “equip your managers with some training on mental health issues in the workplace.”

“It’s pretty stressful for a manager to not know what to do,” she says. “So, training them on the right conversations, how to be empathetic without actually becoming counselors but resources on what might be available – all of those things are really essential because the workplace is suffering with a fair bit.”

If managers are not supported that is a huge problem.

“Organizations need to focus on psychological safety even more than they did before,” she says. “You have to set that norm, you have to make sure that people feel comfortable speaking up.”

Make sure that you don’t set up a culture that tolerates bullying or harassment, and that people feel a strong sense of belonging.”

When LifeWorks surveyed working Canadians, Allen says that almost one in 10 workers said that they didn’t want to go back into the office because they wanted to avoid something negative in the workplace.

“It helps us really understand some of the power that the workplace actually has on some people’s health and wellbeing. It has prompted a lot of conversations and investment and resources around mental health.”

In its most recent report, LifeWorks found that there has been a worsening of relationships between managers and employees, and between peers – this is something that employers need to look out for.

Says Allen: “It’s not just bad things happening that cause relationships to deteriorate, it’s the absence of good things: if we don’t feel supported, we don’t feel that sense of belonging and don’t have those moments where we can feel valued or we can show gratitude or just connect on a personal level.”