Even with Ontario entering a state of emergency and the new stay-at-home order, today feels the same as yesterday. And the day before that. 

It's been 304 days since we collectively thought this would only last for two weeks. We've adapted. Parents have become part-time teachers. We're masters of Zoom and Google Hangouts. Curbside pickup has become the norm.

But adapting has a cost, and finding new ways to be resilient day in and day out isn't sustainable.

You're not alone if your tank is feeling empty. Nowhere is this more evident than in our workplaces. Whether your bedroom is now your office or you're heading into your workplace every day, the sense of well-being at work is suffering because of the ongoing pandemic. 

Workplace well-being is always front of mind for Dave Whiteside, Director of Insights & Research at YMCA WorkWell at YMCA of Three Rivers. Whiteside was part of the team at Plasticity Labs. The startup focused on improving employees’ psychological skills to help them be happier and more productive. The pandemic forced the Plasticity Labs team to shut down the company, but that wasn't the end of their work. 

Plasticity Labs counted the local YMCA as one of their clients. With news of the company closing down, Peter Sweeney, CEO at YMCAs of Cambridge & Kitchener-Waterloo, called Whiteside and Plasticity co-founder Jim Moss with an idea to help bring a focus on well-being into more workplaces.

“Peter reached out and said ‘... there's an opportunity here. Workplace well-being will be hurting a lot over the next year, you are a team of experts who are already doing the work, you already have a lot of the data, how can we bring you on to do good in our community?',” said Whiteside. 


Within a month, Whiteside, Moss, and Nathan Robertson joined YMCA of the Three Rivers to start the WorkWell program. The team has focused on using data to drive their research and programming. They jumped in right from the start with a survey of local community members to create the first-ever YMCA WorkWell Community Well-Being Report.   

“When we began looking over the data, it became pretty clear just how massive the challenges were that organizations were coming up against,” said Whiteside. The research showed the challenges facing organizations and how those challenges and organizational responses affected individual employees. Whiteside and the team were able to use pre-pandemic data to create a baseline for comparison. “We had a ton of prior data that we could contrast it with and honestly, I’ve never seen well-being scores as incredibly low as what they were.”

The report takes feedback from 1,184 employees in Guelph, Stratford-Perth and Waterloo Region collected between July 20 and Aug. 20, 2020, and compares it with results from a similar sized group in late 2019. A key finding from the report was that by July 2020, 63 per cent of respondents said that COVID-19 had a negative impact on their sense of well-being at work. 

Across all industries, the WorkWell team saw well-being scores that were 20 points lower than previous surveys. Even with cultures that allowed work from home before the pandemic, numbers were down in tech, finance and insurance workplaces, too.

Whiteside said his initial expectation was that people working from home would rank their mental health higher since they weren’t facing workplace challenges of dealing with COVID-19. “In terms of working at home, what you lose is the control,” said Whiteside. “I think there were a lot of people that working at home was something that you could choose and you can work it around your schedule. Then, out of nowhere, you’ve lost all that control.” According to Whiteside, that loss of sense of control can impact our well-being.

Beyond the loss of control, we’re also dealing with challenges with resilience in the face of a crisis without a clear end. “It feels like when we hit the initial lockdown in the middle of March, everyone assumed it would be two weeks and so it felt like it was a 100-metre sprint. Then we realized that that 100 metres was actually 200 metres and we kept sprinting. Then we realized that 200 metres was a marathon,” Whiteside said. 

As our pandemic marathon continues, focusing on both home and workplace well-being is key to building resilience. Whiteside said two critical areas for employers and managers to focus on are recognition and communication.

“These are the areas in organizations that protect well-being,” said Whiteside. “Obviously as an organization, you can’t protect everything. There’s always going to be elements that are in the employees’ personal lives that you can’t really impact, but at the end of the day, people need to be recognized and they need to be appreciated in the work that they're doing.”

The report contains four recommendations for employers to take action to increase workplace well-being, including ways to improve the sense of control employees feel.

“They need that control to be able to say, ‘I have kids at home in the morning and I need to put my energy on them from eight until 10, and after 10 I can go heads-down on work,” said Whiteside. “There’s issues around the complexities of how to keep everyone all together and there’s issues with how you arrange your meetings and everything, but at the end of the day, if your ultimate objective is improving well-being, then it’s about providing that control.” 

Ultimately, Whiteside said that we all need to give each other a bit of grace and empathy – which all help create a sense of trust in the workplace. “It comes down to creating that healthy culture where you have communication, you have recognition and you have trust.”

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If you or someone you know is facing mental health challenges during the pandemic, the Government of Ontario has resources available to help on their website.