Laurier researchers study mental health of workers during pandemic

Researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University are studying how the unprecedented shift to physical distancing and self isolation affects workers' mental health.

Team surveyed about 1,000 workers across Canada to ask how the transition has impacted mental wellness

Alexandra Meinzinger enjoys being around her partner and pets at home, although she misses going into the office. (Submitted by Alexandra Meinzinger )

Get up. Get dressed. Stay at home.

It's the new normal for many people across the country.

Now researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University are studying how the unprecedented shift to physical distancing and self-isolation affects workers' mental health.

About 1,000 people across Canada who were working at least 20 hours a week before the COVID-19 outbreak have been surveyed online. It includes people now working from home, those who have been laid off and essential staff still going into the workplace.

The team of researchers, including two professors at the Université du Québec à Montréal, will continue to check in with the participants over the months to come.

Lead researcher Simon Coulombe, an assistant professor in psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University, said tracking the mental health of workers through the pandemic will help better the understanding around how crises of this magnitude impacts people.

"If you look at the existing research about how people cope with these kind of crises, there's not a lot of examples...about the impacts of such a large-scale public health crisis," Coulombe said. 

'Brings me down'

Like most people, Alexandra Meinzinger has had her work life uprooted.

The software developer, who lives in Kitchener, is working at home along with her partner.

They've turned the home office for one into their collective space. But she misses her routine and being around people at the office.

"If I feel like I'm not getting that, it brings me down a bit," she said.

"I'm definitely struggling a lot more than when I was able to go into the office every day."

Coulombe said the preliminary survey results show mental stress has been a regular occurrence for people since the pandemic began.

"Almost half of the sample reported...fairly often to very often in the last week they've experienced feelings of being stressed and not being in control," Coulombe said. "It's to be expected, but it's also relatively concerning I would say."

High anxiety levels

The survey also tracks anxiety levels. Coulombe said so far he's seeing some high levels of anxiety and if the trend continues he would recommend at least 50 percent of the sample get screened for anxiety disorder.

The researchers plan to come up with recommendations for policy makers as they continue to track participants on how best to support the mental health of workers.

But in interim, he stresses the importance of social connection from a far.

"We have to ask ourselves, how can we supplement the social support that people have?" Coulombe said.