Coping with COVID-19: Workplace mental health in times of crisis

Editor's Note

In order to keep Ottawa business leaders informed on best practices amid the COVID-19 pandemic, OBJ publisher Michael Curran is conducting a series of video panel discussions over the coming weeks with local business experts.

In the latest Coping with COVID-19 video, OBJ publisher Michael Curran speaks with a leading expert in workplace mental health, Dr. JianLi Wang, the director of the Work and Mental Health Research Unit at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

The following is an edited version of the interview. Please watch the video above for the full interview, including Dr. Wang’s mental health tips for business owners.

OBJ: Dr. Wang, there is a statistic that I often hear about workplace mental health. It’s estimated 500,000 Canadians miss work each week because of a mental health issue or illness. If that’s indeed the case in normal times, help us understand the scope of this problem in these times.

DR. WANG: Well, the situation with COVID-19 is unprecedented. It’s like nothing we have ever seen before. It has changed the way we behave, the way we live and the way we do business. So many businesses have closed. Workers are suddenly on EI and the emergency benefit. So people are facing uncertainty in this global crisis. People are scared and concerned. These are normal feelings.

This reminds me of a study we did back in 2008 and 2009. It was a study on burnout to understand the workplace factors that can trigger depressive and anxiety disorders. We were recruiting participants across the province of Alberta. This was during the last financial crisis when companies such as Lehman Brothers went bankrupt. There was a clear and significant upward trend in the prevalence of major depressive disorders.

Now we have another financial crisis. I won’t be surprised that people will show symptoms of depression and anxiety, especially now that we’re working from home and we’re restrained from social gatherings to keep physical distance. That will cause feelings of isolation and loneliness that may exacerbate those symptoms. So we need to be careful not to allow these symptoms to progress into something more severe. We need to take a coordinated public health effort, including the private sector.

OBJ: What signs should employers be looking for when it comes to detecting mental health issues with employees?

DR. WANG: Ask people if there are changes in their feelings, whether they still enjoy the things they used to enjoy. Whether there are changes in their sleeping patterns or their eating habits. Ask them whether they can concentrate on their job. These could be signs of depression. These are probing questions. Of course, leave the diagnosis to a mental health professional.