'It just wears you down': Essential workers describe pandemic struggles, coping strategies

Only about 40 per cent of Canadians can work from home during the pandemic, leaving millions to head out the door each day to face stress and potential exposure to COVID-19.

Only 40% of Canadians can work from home, leaving millions facing stress, possible COVID-19 exposure at work

Grocery store worker John Bingul says it's sometimes 'scary' going to his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sam Samson/CBC)

There are many ways you could describe working in a grocery store, but John Bingul's description is succinct.

"It's kind of scary," said the 18-year-old.

Bingul has worked at Foodfare on Winnipeg's Portage Avenue for a year. He's saving up for tuition to study aerospace engineering, which is why he faces his fears and comes to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"School is my motivation, even though it's scary and hard. I bring hand sanitizer [and a] mask every time. And … after work, always use hand sanitizer," he said.

Nearby, Bingul's co-worker, Hartley Bilous, is loading a truck with groceries to deliver. The recent high-school graduate says deliveries have ramped up since March. So has his anxiety.

At the start of the pandemic, Bilous was juggling course work with his job.

"So I'm doing online classes, plus working like 10 hour days. We're getting double the stock orders," said Bilous. "You have to go home, do four or five assignments, wake up, do it again. Seven days a week."

Hartley Bilous stocks the dairy section at Foodfare on Portage Avenue. (Sam Samson/CBC)

About 40 per cent of Canadians have jobs that can be done from home, according to Statistics Canada. Bilous and Bingul are not among them. They, and thousands of other Manitobans, are still heading out the door each day to work during the pandemic.

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health has recommendations for governments to improve Canadians' mental health during COVID-19. One is to prioritize workplace mental health — especially for essential workers.

The report says that before the pandemic, at least half a million Canadians missed work due to mental illness each week. Now, "essential workers may be dealing with additional stress and anxiety due to greater exposure to the virus."

Bilous says that stress is exacerbated when customers are difficult and rude.

"People are normally pretty good when they're shopping, but they turn into this, like, survival mode. And they're not talking to employees like they're people anymore. They're out for themselves," said Bilous.

"It just wears you down, really, but you don't have a choice. You still need to be making money, right?"

Educators face new stress

Teachers and other school staff across Manitoba are among the essential workers who risk exposure to COVID-19 every day. More than 20 Manitoba schools have recorded cases of COVID-19 so far.

The added stress and anxiety for educators led the Manitoba Teachers' Society to compile mental health resources for members.

For Michelle Edwards, the biggest stressor is keeping her students healthy and happy.

"A lot of times we'd like to give kids hugs if they need them, and they're missing them. They're not getting them as much at home or from others," said Edwards, a specialized educator at Marymound School.

Michelle Edwards pauses from work at her desk in her Marymound School classroom. The teacher says she misses having a full class of students. (Sam Samson/CBC)

She says at the beginning of the pandemic, news about schools was always changing, so she took some time away from consuming media to avoid getting stressed out. She's also using the coping mechanisms she teaches her students.

"One of the biggest things that I like to talk to my students about is [that] sometimes we can't control situations, but we can control how we deal with the situation," she said.

"With COVID, I didn't know what to expect. And so just taking that time to reflect on your day and what it is that you want to achieve — I think those are important tasks to do. And then at the end of the day, turning it off," said Edwards.

"I tell my students, yeah, I enjoy video games sometimes, and that's something I'll do for half an hour to kind of de-stress and just let my day go."

Edwards works in her empty classroom at Marymound School. Today, her students are learning from home – part of their rotating schedule. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Alysha Farrell is studying educators' mental health struggles in southwestern Manitoba. The associate professor in Brandon University's faculty of education spoke with several teachers and administrators earlier this year about COVID-19.

Farrell says she heard stories about frustration with poor internet access, and teachers feeling overwhelmed when shifting to remote learning.

"The other stressor, particularly for educational leaders, is that most of their work is not about life and death," said Farrell, who is also the chair of the leadership and education administration department at BU.

"For the first time, the decisions they were making would impact people's health directly. So the weight of those decisions was far more intense than what they had been in the past."

Farrell started a course at Brandon University this term for educators to talk about the pandemic. She says some of their discussions revolve around mental health, and the need for educators to learn coping strategies early on in their careers.

"The pandemic — we felt like it hit us like an avalanche. But there are other creeping crises. I think about climate change, for example," said Farrell.

"We're going to have to learn to sort of build in these kinds of mental-health programs and train our teachers so that they can enact them in classrooms — for this pandemic, but also for other challenges that we may face in the near future."


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email