Despite appearing over two years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an impact on Canadians’ mental health. The task of monitoring employees’ levels of stress at work and providing support falls to managers and human resource professionals. How well are small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) responding to the challenge?

ow are Canadians dealing with stress at work during the pandemic?

COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted across the country, but their effect on mental health could linger. The risk of infection remains even where restrictions do not; when paired with other current tumultuous world events, coping with job stress can become unmanageable. In a previous study, Capterra discovered that almost three-quarters of remote employees reported a symptom of burnout in 2020. 

To study how the progression of the pandemic has affected employees’ stress at work, we surveyed 1,100 Canadians working in SMEs (see the full methodology at the bottom of this article). To follow our first article in this series exploring how employees navigate their mental health in the workplace, we will examine how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the working life and mental state of employees.

How has the pandemic affected employees’ mental health?

To gauge how the COVID-19 pandemic affected stress at work, we asked Canadians who had not changed jobs since 2020 to describe their mental health before the pandemic, during the first year, and in February 2022. Overall, the employees surveyed showed a decrease in positive mental health (self-reported “excellent” or “good” mental wellbeing) from 69% to 47%; a drop of 22 percentage points since the beginning of the pandemic.

The biggest impact on employee mental health occurred during the first year of the pandemic, where positive mental health decreased by 29 percentage points. While there was a 7-point increase in reported positive mental wellbeing from then until now, one in five employees (21%) say their mental health is currently bad or very bad.

How has the pandemic affected employees’ mental health?

Which employees are most affected?

The restrictions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have also affected working conditions. While about 40% of workers worked from home during this time, remote work was not possible for all industries —which may have had an impact on employee wellbeing. 

Employees surveyed who worked remotely or while moving between sites were most likely to describe their mental health positively. 56% of workers who move between sites are currently in an “excellent” or “good” headspace and 50% of remote workers report the same. Workers with hybrid set-ups (partially in office, partially from home) are in nearly as good mental health condition as remote workers, with 49% reporting positive current mental health.

do working conditions (WFH, hybrid) affect employee mental health?

According to our survey, employees who work strictly on site are most likely to describe their current mental health state negatively (16% say their current mental wellbeing is bad, and a further 8% say it’s very bad). In the first part of our survey, the majority of respondents said that flexible working hours are the most valuable mental health resource, which could be why employees with the freedom to move at their own pace are doing better mentally than those who work fully on site.

Are employees feeling more stress at work?

To analyze why the mental health of employees has worsened since the onset of the pandemic, job-related stress must be considered. The majority of employees surveyed (55%) report feeling the same level of stress as last year, but nearly one in four employees (24%) say their stress at work has increased. 

Stress at work can and does affect Canadians in their personal lives as well as on the job. Respondents to the survey report regularly experiencing symptoms of burnout caused by their job, such as:

  • 36% who have sleeping problems
  • 29% who are constantly worrying
  • 25% who have difficulty concentrating

Despite the portion of respondents reporting negative health effects caused by stress at work, over a third (34%) don’t encounter any symptoms of burnout. 

Tip for SMEs: Not all employees struggling with their mental health will feel comfortable reaching out for help. Offering a virtual space where workers can learn about the mental health resources available to them by accessing their corporate wellness plan can create a discreet pathway for them to improve their mental health.

What are the most stressful work-related factors?

Many workplaces have implemented more digital processes during the COVID-19 pandemic. As they have, employees have had to learn new workflows. According to our 2021 survey of employees, 44% developed a new skill since the beginning of the pandemic.

While some changes were positive, not all were. As for the aspects of their jobs that employees found most stressful, increasing workloads (37%), fears of being infected with COVID-19 at work (24%), and work considered unsustainable due to being either monotonous or overwhelming (23%) were the top culprits.

stress factors at work in Canada
Tip for SMEs: Companies seeking to reduce stressful elements of their employees’ jobs should investigate to pinpoint the stress factors specific to their workplace. Although our survey included employees from a variety of industries, businesses could get more accurate results by asking their employees directly via employee surveys

Do employees feel safe from COVID-19 at work?

Most employees who work on site at least partially report feeling safe in regards to their employer’s COVID-19 protocols, with 45% citing feeling “very safe” and 44% feeling “somewhat safe.”  

Although the employees surveyed appear to feel generally protected from infection at work, comfort levels seem to depend on their working conditions. Onsite employees in client-facing roles were most likely to be afraid of being infected with COVID-19 while working. Only 18% of work-from-home employees, who could still consider themselves at risk —for example, while handling products or offering client-facing services such as therapy— report feeling stressed over possible contagion.

What do employee working conditions have to do with fear of being infected with COVID-19 while at work?

Employees who work with clients on site were also more likely to feel unsafe due to workplace COVID-19 policies (12% feel “somewhat unsafe” and 2% feel “very unsafe”) than those with non-customer-facing onsite roles (5% feel “somewhat unsafe” and 1% “very unsafe”).

This disparity may not only be due to workplace circumstances. Business owners have reported push-back and even harassment from customers unhappy with COVID-19 protocols at their onsite locations (such as the Vancouver businesses receiving backlash for continuing to enforce mask mandates). Considering that problems dealing with customers was reported as a source of stress for 20% of employees, client relationships may be getting harder to navigate in the face of the pandemic.

Tip for SMEs: Faced with hostile customers and fears of contracting COVID-19, employees in client-oriented roles may need extra support from their employers. Regular breaks, one-on-one meetings with managers, and team connection are just a few strategies for managing stress in the workplace.

What can employers do to reduce workplace stress?

The pandemic has had many effects on employees’ mental health, both in and out of the workplace. With the negative impact these issues can have on work performance and productivity, it’s clear that companies should invest in mental health support.

Employers must pay attention to the influence that work locations can have on employees’ mental states, even during periods of the pandemic when physical distancing requirements are in effect. Gathering employee opinions on what could make their workplace conditions satisfactory, either via one-on-one meetings or anonymous employee surveys, could help inform company decision-makers.

As the survey showed growing employee workloads contributed to stress at work, SMEs may want to consider using project management tools to keep an eye on individual capacity and allocate tasks based on availability. Creating company wellness programs and other mental health resources could offset some of this stress and give employees the support they need to safeguard their workplace mental health.

Looking for Human Resource software? Check out our catalogue. 

Survey methodology: 

Capterra’s Mental Health in the Workplace Survey was launched online in January through February 2022. The survey was completed by 1,100 Canadians. The sample of participants is representative of the population of Canada regarding aspects of age and gender, and the criteria for selecting participants are as follows: 

  • Canadian resident
  • Between the ages of 18 and 65
  • Employed full- or part-time 
  • Working in a directorial, managerial, senior, mid-level, or associate-level position
  • Working at a company with between 2 and 250 employees
  • Has not changed or left jobs between January 2020 and January 2022