What two years of telework has taught us about mental health

Pandemic has eroded worker optimism and 'sense of belonging', says global leader

What two years of telework has taught us about mental health

Two years of working from home has given Canadian employers a more nuanced understanding of the advantages and pitfalls of telework.

“When people are working from home, they’re more likely to say that their work life [balance] has improved,” says Paula Allen, Global Leader and Senior Vice President, Research and Total Wellbeing, at LifeWorks.

“[Workers] have a little bit more control, they have a little bit more flexibility. That is something that has come up as fairly positive.

But I do think, you have to look at all the information and aggregates because in previous months we’ve actually seen that people who are working hybrid, or working from home, have less of a sense of belonging with their workplace,” says Allen.

“And you might not think that that’s a big deal – but it actually is a fairly big deal. People need to feel that sense of belonging,” she says.

For those working from home, there is a sense of control: they choose their outfit, take breaks at their own pace, etc.

“It’s less about the physical workplace and more about what it does or does not give you in terms of the control of your time,” says Allen. “So that’s what people are actually gravitating to when they’re talking about working from home or working in hybrid, it’s really a request for flexibility or a desire for control.”

It’s about how people manage their time more than physical location.

Both the pros and cons of working from home are directly linked to worker mental health. Employees who are able to telework are prey to feelings of isolation, but conversely may also benefit positively and feel empowered in that way of working.

Virtual care

And as many workers have temporarily or more permanently embraced an at-home or hybrid model (certainly amid the Omicron surge), a lot of mental health care – notably care provided by businesses and organizations – has gone virtual.

“We do have a large portion of the population that is very comfortable and prefers digital,” says Allen, but many still do prefer in-person care. “You really have to make sure that you're meeting the person's preference for full effectiveness. So if somebody does prefer to have that in-person connection, it really does need to continue to be available.”

There are still many workers who do not understand what is available to them.

“Employers very often have employee assistance programs (EAPs) and often people don’t understand how they work, or even if they have access to them,” says Allen.

The main thing to know, she says, is that though these programs are employer-funded, they are absolutely confidential.

“EAPs have been around for [decades] and would never have survived if they didn’t maintain that confidentiality.”

There is also no cost:

“The way the Employee Assistance Program works is that there's virtually no financial barrier. So in this time, when we have such high need for mental health support, it's really incumbent upon us as a society, as well as employers, to make sure that people understand what's available.”

Wavering optimism

With the Omicron surge and fresh restrictions, Allen suspects that there will be a decline in our optimism.

“I think we’re going to continue to feel the edge that we’ve been feeling,” she says.

Allen says that according to LifeWorks’ statistics, there has been a doubling of the proportion of the population that is at high risk for mental health issues – from 14 per cent to 34 per cent.

“Those people who do have mental health support needs, their needs are fairly complex – more so than before,” says Allen. “We have a natural sense of optimism as human beings; when we find that things improve, we see a light at the end of the tunnel. And then we feel that sense of being pulled back, it’s extremely frustrating.”

And this ultimately affects our mental health, she says:

“This whole pandemic – the ups and downs – has really been unprecedented in terms of the impact on full populations. People in their lives have ups and downs, but all of us at the same time has really put a massive strain on the mental health of the population.”