Workers who feel protected from COVID at work have better mental health, research suggests

Study conducted at the start of the COVID-19 emergency finds higher anxiety and depressive symptoms among workers who felt workplace safety practices were inadequate

December 14, 2020 (Toronto, Canada)—Providing adequate workplace COVID-19 protection can have benefits in addition to preventing the transmission of the virus. Adequate protection is also linked to better mental health among workers, according to a pair of studies conducted by the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers (OHCOW) and the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

The newest of the two studies, published today in the Annals of Work Exposures and Health (doi:10.1093/annweh/wxaa119), found Canadian workers who continued to work onsite in the spring of 2020 reported high levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms when they felt they had none of the coronavirus protection they needed. For example, more than half of these workers met the screening criteria for anxiety. Conversely, anxiety symptoms were lowest among people who felt protected at their worksites, with about a third meeting the criteria for anxiety.

Notably, people who felt fully protected at their worksites had similar or even slightly better mental health compared to people who worked from home. Likewise, people who felt entirely unprotected at work had even poorer mental health than people who had lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic.

This new study is based on an online survey completed in April to early June 2020 by more than 3,500 Canadians who worked outside the health-care sector. Another study by the same research team, published earlier in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry (doi:10.1177/0706743720961729), focused on the experiences of nearly 6,000 health-care workers. It, too, found workers reported lower levels of anxiety and depressive symptoms when they felt their workplaces had the personal protective equipment (PPE) and infection control procedures that they needed.

The mental well-being of Canadian workers is a concern in this pandemic. Our study suggests one way workplaces can improve employee mental health is to help them feel safe from COVID when they are at work, says IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Peter Smith and lead author of the study.

We were surprised to see people who went to work and felt their safety needs were met had lower rates of anxiety or depression symptoms than people who worked at home during the pandemic. This is a clear signal of the value of having a safe environment at the workplace, says John Oudyk, occupational hygienist at OHCOW and co-lead of the study.

The two studies were based on online surveys distributed by OHCOW through social media channels and labour networks. The surveys asked workers to identify the PPE and infection control procedures they needed at work and to what extent the needed protections were available.

Examples of PPE included masks, gloves, eye protection/goggles, face shields, gowns or coveralls, hand sanitizers and soap and running water. Infection control measures named in the health-care workers survey included patient-screening policies, house-cleaning practices, and the use of masks for symptomatic patients. In the survey aimed at non-health-care workers, safety practices included increased ventilation, installation of plexiglass, physical distancing, staggered schedules, cleaning/disinfection practices, among others.

The surveys also included questions from two widely used screening tools for anxiety and depression. The analyses by the research team compared anxiety and depression symptoms across workers reporting different levels of workplace protection. In the non-health-care workers, the team also compared the mental health levels of people who were at work at their workplace (51 per cent of the sample) with those of people who worked from home (42 per cent of the sample) and those of people who had lost their jobs since the onset of the pandemic (seven per cent).

About the Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers

OHCOW is an independent, not-for-profit, province-wide occupational health and safety clinic system. Established in 1989 by the Ontario Federation of Labour and funded through the Ontario Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development, OHCOW provides services and resources to workers, employers, advocates, health providers and organizations, for the identification and prevention of occupational illness, injury and disease.

About the Institute for Work & Health

IWH is an independent, not-for-profit research organization that aims to protect and improve the health of working people. Recognized as one of the top five occupational health and safety research centres in the world, the Institute provides practical and relevant findings on the prevention of work injury and disability to policy-makers, workers, employers, clinicians, and health, safety and disability management professionals.

Media contacts

Cindy Moser 
Communications Director
Institute for Work & Health
416-927-2027, ext. 2183
705-872-1939 (cell)
cmoser@iwh.on.ca

Uyen Vu
Senior Communications Associate
Institute for Work & Health
613-725-0106
613-979-7742 (cell)
uvu@iwh.on.ca