Mental health in the workplace: an ongoing challenge

Psychological distress at work affects nearly 4 out of 10 people in Quebec, while burnout affects more than one in five.

Psychological distress at work affects nearly 4 out of 10 people in Quebec, while burnout affects more than one in five.

Credit: Getty

In 5 seconds

The latest data from UdeM's Observatory on Health and Well-Being at Work shows that workplaces are still grappling with mental health.

In Quebec workplaces, psychological distress and psychotropic drug use have fallen back to prepandemic levels, but symptoms of depression, anxiety and burnout have become more widespread.

That’s according to the latest data from a longitudinal study by the Observatory on Health and Well-Being at Work (OSMET), led by professor Alain Marchand of Université de Montréal’s School of Industrial Relations.

The study launched in 2019 to track the changing mental health of 6,602 people in 95 Quebec workplaces. The data was compiled in cycles that covered different workplaces over different periods: 2019–2021 (cycle 1), 2020–2022 (cycle 2) and 2021–2023 (cycle 3).

By the time cycle 3 began, 38.6 per cent of all respondents reported feelings of psychological distress, while 12 to 15.9 per cent reported symptoms of depression or anxiety, 25.4 per cent  reported burnout and 22.4 per cent used psychotropic drugs.

Back to prepandemic levels

First the good news: in general, rates of psychological distress have dropped back to where they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Distress among men remained practically unchanged throughout the study, having gone from 34.4 per cent to 35 per cent between cycle 1 and cycle 3. Among women, the rate rose from 38.9 per cent to 41.3 per cent over the same cycles, peaking at 44.8 per cent in cycle 2.

Looking at the different age groups, all genders combined, youth between the ages of 18 and 34 reported the highest incidence of psychological distress: 40.5 per cent in cycle 1, 50 per cent in cycle 2 and 45.3 per cent in cycle 3.

In contrast, psychological distress affected just one in three people aged 50 and up.

Burnout remains an issue

Alain Marchand

Alain Marchand

Credit: Université de Montréal

Overall, burnout rates were approximately the same in cycles 1 and 3, after dropping sharply in cycle 2, the pandemic years.

Fewer than one in four men (23 per cent) felt burned out in cycles 1 and 3, while fewer than one in five (19 per cent) reported feelings of burnout in cycle 2. Meanwhile, the rates for women were 28 per cent in cycle 1, 24.8 per cent in cycle 2 and 26.5 per cent in cycle 3.

Once again, burnout was most common among youth between 18 and 34  (rising from 27.4 to 30.5 per cent over the three cycles). Adults between the ages of 35 and 49 came in second (with rates falling from 29.7 to 27.8 per cent over the same time frame).

Depression and anxiety a concern

Between cycles 2 and 3, depression increased among all respondents, all ages and genders combined. Women (17.3 per cent in cycle 3), adults aged 35-to-49 (17 per cent) and 18-to-34 (23.1 per cent) reported the most symptoms. But the biggest jumps between these two cycles were seen among men (9.9 to 13.4 per cent) and adults aged 35 to 49 (14 to 17 per cent).

Symptoms of anxiety mostly affected adults aged 18 to 34, with rates holding at 19 per cent  over cycles 2 and 3. Although anxiety stayed relatively unchanged among women (11.7 to 13.2 per cent) over the same period, the biggest rise was seen among men (8.1 to 11.5 per cent).

Finally, consumption of psychotropic drugs remained more or less the same over all three cycles. Of the respondents, women and adults aged 50 and up used these drugs the most (25.2 per cent in cycle 3 for both groups).

Challenging for women and youth

According to Marchand, mental health for women and youth is particularly concerning.

“When we look at these numbers over time, psychological distress and burnout appear to have been influenced by conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic that mainly started to appear in cycle 2," he said. “But the data suggests that these changes were specific to the pandemic, since the indicators went back to prepandemic levels in cycle 3.”

He added that the combined effects of lockdown, fear of contagion and the need to work from home seemed to dissipate over time, once the spread of the disease came under control and people started to go back to in-person work, whether full-time or on a hybrid schedule.

But the increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety observed in men between cycle 2 and cycle 3, and symptoms of depression in adults aged 35 to 49, is worth keeping an eye on, Marchand said.

“We still need to analyze the data so we can understand these changes, but men may have had a harder time going back to work, with all the complications that commuting brings, while adults aged 35 to 49 may once again be finding it difficult to achieve a healthy work-life balance."