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Canadian workers are avoiding each other: That’s a ‘huge issue’ and an opportunity

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February 24, 2023
By Todd Humber

(diego cervo/Adobe Stock)

One-third of Canadian workers are avoiding interacting with each other, according to the most recent data from the monthly TELUS Health Mental Health Index.

That’s a “huge issue” for employers, said Paula Allen, global leader, research and total wellbeing for TELUS Health. It’s also a big opportunity.

“Look at the way our society is right now. Look at the way the economy is right now. The difference between organizations that thrive and those that languish have to do with innovation, their customer service, the collaboration between their people,” she said.

Isolation is a substantial issue, even if individuals don’t fully realize the implications, said Allen. “We are meant to be social. We are meant to have social support,” she said.


“When we don’t have shared experiences, it’s hard to have that social support and it makes stress feel all the worse.”

This lack of social interaction is a COVID-19 hangover — and not totally shocking because people are creatures of habit.

“Even though we didn’t like being told we couldn’t interact over the pandemic, a lot of us became used to being by ourselves more and are finding it more difficult to say yes to social contact,” said Allen.

Focus on productivity

Allen said many organizations are hyper-focused on productivity right now and getting remote workers back into the office.

“My concern is that they’re not really taking the right tack,” she said. “They’re assuming lower productivity is because people are not in the office. They’re assuming people aren’t trying, in some cases. None of our data bears that out.”

Paula Allen, TELUS Health

For many people, productivity dropped when mental health plummeted at the start of the pandemic, she said. But that drop was couched in the long hours many workers logged.

“Our mental health has improved slightly since the beginning of the pandemic, and our productivity has improved,” she said. “But we no longer have these extra hours that people are routinely working.”

Hits all sectors

And while talk of productivity drops and returning to the office often focuses on knowledge workers, it’s a universal issue across all industries, she said.

Workers in sectors like forestry, construction and manufacturing also took a social and mental health hit during the pandemic.

“We were all subject to that disruption that impacted our collective mental health,” she said. “Those people who didn’t stop working had their own issues. It wasn’t about the isolation of working from home, but the fear — they were dealing with a lot of safety protocols, fear for their own lives, fear for their family.”

People dealing with the public, like grocery store staff and retail workers, had to deal with rising incivility as well, she said.

“Talk to a barista in a coffee shop, or a customer service representative in a bank, and they’ll tell you the public is a lot angrier, a lot more cynical, a lot more on edge,” she said.

The research conducted by TELUS Health explains a lot of that, she said, because about half the population is more sensitive to stress.

“We had so much fight or flight engagement in our brain that it really took away from empathy and emotional control,” said Allen.

Rising inflation taking a toll

Economic news isn’t contributing to overall mental health, even though there was a slight uptick in the Mental Health Index score from December to January to 64.8 points out of 100.

Rising inflation is forcing the majority of people (63 per cent) to cut back on discretionary spending, and nearly one in 10 (seven per cent) said they have even cut back on prescription medications.

“That’s a big wakeup call. It shows the stress of this inflation on people’s lives and decision-making,” said Allen.

The opportunity

The research only looks at working Canadians, which is why Allen said there is an opportunity for employers lurking in the data.

“Many of those respondents have benefits and programs that support health through their employers, and we know that many employees are not aware of what’s available to them,” she said.

Communication of benefit programs is always a priority, but especially so in light of this data.

“There are many things that are offered that would help prevent people from needing to make any kind of decision around whether they should invest in their health or not,” she said.

Employers need to help push the idea that anything you put into your health is an “investment, not an expense.”

Return to office

While forcing workers back to worksites on a regular basis might seem like an easy solution, it isn’t that simple, said Allen.

“It’s a little more complicated than simply saying that people with shared experiences aren’t going to have as much of an issue,” she said.

That’s because taking away control, or losing the feeling of flexibility, could cancel out the benefits of bringing teams together in-person.

“I think the thing to do is realize that this is an evolution, and it’ll settle in a place that it will settle in. Probably, we’ll have more structured in office time in the future than we do right now,” she said.

For now, the focus needs to be on making and renewing connections — both in our personal lives and at work.

“When you aren’t really aware of what’s happening, then it just becomes a natural part of life,” she said. “You just float down the river — even if the river is not taking you to the right place,” said Allen. “We hope that with the support of Talent Canada, with the awareness that we’re bringing, that people will reach out for support and not isolate themselves.”

About the survey

The monthly survey by TELUS Health was conducted through an online survey in English and French from January 17 to 24, 2023 with 3,000 respondents in Canada.

All respondents reside in Canada and were employed within the last six months. The data has been statistically weighted to ensure the regional and gender composition of the sample reflect this population. The Mental Health Index is published monthly, beginning April 2020.

It is based on a response scoring system that then turns individual responses into point values. Higher point values are associated with better mental health and less mental health risk. Scores between 0 to 49 correspond with distress levels, scores between 50 to 79 correspond with strain levels and scores between 80 to 100 correspond with optimal levels of mental health.

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