More than half of Canadians work despite feeling unwell, at least one day a week: report

A new report has found that more than half of Canadian employees report working while feeling unwell at least once a week, a trend experts at LifeWorks say is contributing to productivity loss in the workplace and a decline in employees’ mental health.

According to the LifeWorks’ monthly Mental Health Index released Wednesday, 54 per cent of respondents said they do their job while feeling unwell, either physically or psychologically, at least once a week.

The report found that mental-health scores among these Canadians are “significantly below” those who report never working while feeling unwell.

In addition, 64 per cent of parents reported working when feeling unwell at least one day per week.

Presenteeism, where employees show up to work when they’re unwell, was a problem in workplaces pre-pandemic. However, Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice-president of research and total wellbeing at LifeWorks, says COVID-19 has shifted attitudes on this, making employers more aware of the increased number of employees working while feeling unwell.

“We know that when people are feeling unwell, their productivity at work suffers. We also have clear data that indicates an organization’s culture of wellbeing and investments in workplace mental health make a difference in the overall health of the workforce,” Allen said in a press release.

The report found that 46 per cent of Canadians indicated that they never work while feeling unwell. This group had the “most favourable” mental health score, according to LifeWorks, coming in at nearly four points about the pre-pandemic benchmark (+3.7).

LifeWorks uses a response scoring system that turns individual responses to each survey question into a point value. Higher point values are associated with better mental health, according to the report.

The scores of those surveyed are added and then divided by a total number of possible points to obtain a score out of 100. To demonstrate change, the current month’s scores are then compared to the benchmark and the prior month.

LifeWorks has published its Mental Health Index every month since April 2020, and the benchmark comprises data collected in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

LifeWorks said those who have a mental health score of -40 or lower, are estimated to have a productivity loss of 27 per cent, compared to those with a mental health score of +10 or more with a productivity loss of 10 per cent.

As more employees return to workplaces amid COVID-19, Allen said it is crucial that employers take note of their employees’ mental health.

“As we move forward in the next phase of the pandemic, there will be more change and added strain as a result. This is not the time to ease our focus on employee mental health and wellbeing. The need continues and the productivity risk is significant,” she said in the release.


The report found that working from home also contributes to worsening isolation and negative mental health among Canadian workers.

According to LifeWorks, 73 per cent of those surveyed said that prior to the pandemic they felt a sense of belonging and acceptance at work, while only 65 per cent felt the same during the past month.

The report found that 68 per cent of employees who work at a job site feel a greater sense of belonging compared to those surveyed who work from home or in a hybrid workplace.

Among people working from home full-time or splitting their time between home and the job site, their sense of belonging and acceptance has declined from 73 per cent pre-pandemic to 61 per cent, according to LifeWorks.

Respondents who felt a sense of belonging and acceptance at work had the highest mental health score, coming in at -3.1, and the best isolation score at -3.4 compared to those who were unsure or did not feel the same way.

In addition, isolation scores among those working exclusively from home are worse (-9.6) than those working in a hybrid model (-7.6) or from the jobsite (-7.3)

“While remote or hybrid work offers flexibility and saves commuting time, there is a risk that people may feel less connection to their organizations and colleagues over time,” explained Stephen Liptrap, president and CEO of LifeWorks, in a press release. “When transitioning to a virtual setting during the pandemic, many employees lost the spontaneity of conversations that they may have found invigorating.”

This trend is seen across all age groups, according to LifeWorks, but the proportion of employees who report feeling a sense of belonging at work was found to increase with age.

To ensure a successful return to the workplace, Liptrap said employers should consider “innovative ways” to help decrease feelings of isolation to create a work environment “free from bias, regardless of work location.”

“Connections and the social support they offer are important to well-being and we need to ensure that this is not lost,” he said in the release.

LifeWorks graphic 2


LifeWorks’ overall Mental Health Index for August 2021 was down for the 17th consecutive month, with the index score hitting -9.7 compared to the pre-pandemic benchmark. However, LifeWorks noted that this is the highest mental health score recorded since the launch of the index in April 2020

The index also monitors sub-scores against pre-pandemic benchmarks, including financial risk, psychological health, isolation, work productivity, anxiety, depression and optimism.

The report found that optimism and general psychological health sub-scores have declined compared to those reported in July, while the financial risk sub-score has seen the most significant improvement, gaining 1.1 points from the prior month.

LifeWorks said financial risk continues to be the strongest of all sub-scores and remains above the pre-2020 benchmark.

LifeWorks’ latest monthly index is based on an English and French survey with 3,000 responses collected online between July 30 and Aug. 5, 2021. All respondents reside in Canada and were employed within the last six months, according to the index.

The HR company, formerly known as Morneau Shepell, says the data has been “statistically weighted” to ensure the regional and gender composition of the sample reflects Canada’s population.

LifeWorks added that online surveys cannot be assigned a margin of error because they do not randomly sample the population.

Edited by senior producer Mary Nersessian and producer Sonja Puzic

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