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As the new work year begins, and with much of Canada in lockdown again, pandemic-weary employees are showing signs of burnout, mental health providers say.

“It has a lot to do with uncertainty; it’s difficult to make plans,” says Jamie Marcellus, president of Toronto-based employee assistance firm HumanaCare. Hopes of returning to “some semblance of normal” last summer were dashed when a second wave of the coronavirus hit in the fall.

Many employees who mustered “heroic efforts” through the early months of the pandemic, despite the challenges of remote work, were struggling by September – especially those juggling their roles as workers and parents, home-schooling their children in some cases, Mr. Marcellus said.

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The rising stress levels are reflected in HumanaCare’s case load – the volume of employees seeking help for anxiety and depression over the past four months is 30 per cent higher than before COVID-19, he said.

Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, which has been tracking the mental health of adult Canadians since the start of the pandemic, has also found significant levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness in the general population. A survey conducted in collaboration with Toronto-based research technology firm Delvinia between Nov. 27 and Dec. 1, found that 23.4 per cent of 1,003 respondents had suffered from moderate to severe levels of anxiety the previous week. Researchers found that 23.3 per cent had experienced loneliness occasionally or most of the time the previous week, and 21.7 per cent had felt depressed some or most of the time.

The survey results “highlight the struggles Canadians are having with their mental health during the pandemic,” said Adam Froman, founder and chief executive officer of Delvinia. “It’s critical that we continue to shine a spotlight on these issues … It’s only with understanding the problems that we can begin properly to address them.”

As an employer, Delvinia found that – from a technological standpoint – the transition to remote work last March was seamless. But Mr. Froman and his executive team had to find ways to address the feelings of sudden isolation employees were grappling with. “Managing … became an exercise in active communications and empathy.” Everyone adapted; productivity did not suffer. But when the workload increased in the fall because of a surge in demand for digital data collection and market research, the company lost 10 employees who might otherwise have stayed if they’d had access to hands-on, in-person support, he said.

Now, anxiety levels spike when Mr. Froman broaches the topic of an eventual return to the office. There is a lot of fear about COVID-19 and the effectiveness of the vaccines being rolled out, he said. “Until the vaccine is available to everybody, we are not making any decisions [about a return to work] and that’s going to buy us time for developing flexible work models.”

Early in the pandemic, in Newmarket, Ont., Mayor John Taylor appointed a “chief positivity officer” to boost the spirits of town employees working through the pandemic. There was serious intent behind the lighthearted move.

The mental well-being of Newmarket’s public servants has never been more severely tested, at a time when the need for their services has never been more critical, Mr. Taylor said in a year-end interview. The role chief positivity officer Jamie Boyle has played – with humour, compassion and shout-outs to unsung heroes – “has really helped with morale,” Mr. Taylor said.

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Still, the mayor worries about what the next few months will bring. Employees working from home have not seen their colleagues for 10 months; those interacting with the public have to be constantly vigilant about protecting themselves and others from the coronavirus. It’s taking a toll.

Mr. Boyle, a long-time customer service supervisor, works confidentially with the town’s human resources department to ensure employees know where to get help if they are struggling with mental-health issues.

But he is also big on maintaining social connections with the town’s 400 employees, reminding them of the good they are doing for the community, and promoting a bit of fun. Mr. Boyle circulates the compliments that come through the customer care centre, and tries to keep camaraderie alive through virtual events.

Mr. Boyle made his debut as a celebrity chef in December, joined by other Newmarket foodies in their own kitchens making “a hearty vegetable lasagna.” His cooking show will be back, by popular demand, around Valentine’s day. Mr. Boyle has not settled on a menu yet, “but I’ll probably be dressed as a cherub.”

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