The Future of Work and Learning Brief
Issue 40 | November 2023

This edition of the brief is focused on mental health and substance use impacts on the workforce and includes references to suicide and specific substances. Help is available 24/7 at the following:

  • The Canadian Mental Health Association – 1-833-456-4566, text 45645, or online
  • Hope for Wellness Hotline for Indigenous people – 1-855-242-3310 or online
  • Kids Help Phone – 1-800-668-668-6868, text Connect to 686868 or live chat
  • Provincial/Territorial substance use helplines
  • First Nations and Métis substance use treatment resources

Mental Health and Productivity Decline

The latest Telus Mental Health Index suggests the state of mental health among Canadian workers is either stagnant or in decline. The Mental Health Index as of September 2023 indicates a “strained” index range over three years, with a noticeable dip in early 2023.

A survey commissioned by Manulife Financial found that 71 per cent of employees feel their mental health has interfered with their ability to work in the past year.

Business and economic impacts are significant. April 2023 data from Statistics Canada shows that 7.5 per cent of employees took time off due to stress or mental health reasons in the past year, leading to an average of 2.4 lost workdays. The Boston Consulting Group reports that workplace stress costs Canada over $220 billion annually, with direct costs at $32 billion (10 per cent of public health spending) and indirect costs like downtime and presenteeism or “productivity loss resulting from real health problems” at $190 billion, not including impacts on quality of life for families.

The World Health Organization estimates a global loss of 12 billion workdays yearly to depression and anxiety, costing $1 trillion in productivity.

Finances, Burnout and Anxiety

Mental Health Research Canada finds that economic pressures are one of the key factors perpetuating this decline. Cost-of-living concerns can lead to increased anxiety and substance use and exacerbate pre-existing mental health conditions. Individuals are also less likely to be able to afford mental health supports when they need them most because they either do not have coverage or their need exceeds their coverage.

Students and working individuals, especially those who have pre-existing mental health conditions or substance dependencies, are more likely to experience burnout.  Youth are also more likely to report thoughts of suicide than older demographics. Of youth surveyed, 29 per cent of 16–17-year-olds and 25 per cent of those aged 18-34 reported thoughts of suicide in the past year. In a series of interviews and a survey of youth aged 15-25, the Globe and Mail reports that Gen Z have “a disheartening pessimism about the world around them, and the future ahead.”

High Risk Occupations

University of Alberta researcher Rebecca Purc-Stephenson led a study of the mental health of farmers across Canada, Australia, the UK and U.S. Researchers identified seven themes which include farmer identity, financial crisis, family, community, isolation, access to toxins and firearms, and unpredictable environments, and examined how these themes could negatively or positively impact the mental health of a farmer. Researchers then developed a Farming Resilience Management Framework to explain how these themes could lead to mental health breakdown or lead to mental health stability. Depending on context and perceptions of mental health, community or family could either add stress and contribute to a breakdown or help alleviate stress and support a return to stability.

Frontline workers who are essential to healthcare and social assistance are also among the most susceptible. Nurses, paramedics and community service workers made up 33 per cent of the 2,000 psychological injury claims WorkSafeBC approved in 2022. Such injuries can mean the individual is “off the job four times longer than those with serious physical ailments and cost the system three times as much,” the Vancouver Sun reports.

A new report from the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum Understanding Substance Use Among Apprentices in the Skilled Trades provides urgently needed insights amidst the opioid crisis. Of those surveyed who reported substance use for anxiety or depression, psychedelics, cannabis and opioids were the most used. Opioids were the most used to manage pain from a work injury while sedatives and alcohol were used to cope with work-related stress. Stimulants and opioids were the most used to improve work performance.

Of those who reported harms from substance use, the most reported harms were to their mental and physical health and personal relationships. Journeypersons were more likely to report opioid or sedative use compared to apprentices. While workers were aware of employer policies regarding substance use and where to receive assistance, they were less aware of the processes for leaving or returning work for treatment.

Innovative Solutions

The 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that employees in 12 countries, including Canada, increasingly expect their employers to model healthy work-life boundaries and support their well-being. Support can take various forms, such as Mental Health First Aid (MHFA). The Mental Health Commission of Canada defines MHFA as support for individuals “developing a mental health problem or experiencing a mental health crisis.” MHFA training emphasizes the recognition of common mental health problems, builds confidence to provide help and promotes the mental health well-being of participants.

Best Buy Canada implemented MHFA training within their workforce. Working with their Employee Assistance Program (EAP), leaders are trained to recognize early warning signs such as changes in an employee’s behaviour, increased absenteeism or a decline in productivity. Chris Taylor, Chief Human Resources Officer at Best Buy Canada, explained to Human Resources Director how their approach extends beyond daily shift check-ins, incorporating semi-annual “fireside chats” to engage with employees more deeply. Taylor emphasizes “we can pollinate the website internally with a ton of content, but it’s that ground level support to the champion network that really brings this to the forefront. And we’re really able to support our people in a meaningful way.”

Paula Allen, Global Leader, Research & Client Insights at TELUS Health, points out the challenges when there is not a singular source providing access to the range of supports available and expense reimbursement. Allen explains “When we address fragmentation, we improve service, adoption and health outcomes.” The Mental Health Index from August 2023 shows that mental health indexes were higher for those who knew about the EAP. The report also reveals 40 per cent of workers are entirely unaware of their employee assistance program and 26 per cent knew it existed but did not know what the EAP specifically offered.

Sector and Occupational Resources

  • Skilled tradesSubstance use and the Workplace: Supporting Employers and Employees in the Trades Toolkit, Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction. This toolkit includes guidance on workplace policies and procedures and setting up peer support programs.
  • First RespondersThe Working Mind First Responders training program by Opening Minds. First responders can choose to enroll in a four-hour employee course, eight-hour leadership course, or a five-day train the trainer course.
  • AgricultureAgTalk Peer Support by The Do More Agriculture Foundation. The platform allows those aged 16 and over who work in the agriculture sector to “connect, share, and receive support from a community of peers.”
  • EnergyPsychological Health and Safety Resource Centre, Energy Safety Canada. ESC provides on demand webinars and resources for the sector generally and also specific to employers and workers. There are also links to additional resources and training.
  • RetailMental Health Retail Guidebook, October 2022 by the Retail Council of Canada. The book provides information for supporting customers, resources for frontline retail workers, and for leaders to create mentally healthy workplaces.
  • PilotsPilot Peer Support by Air Line Pilots Association Int’l. Volunteers provide 24/7 for members in the United States and Canada.

The Future of Work & Learning Brief is compiled by Stephany Laverty, Janet Lane, and Ethan Johnson. If you like what you see, subscribe to our mailing list and share with a friend. If you have any interesting stories for future editions, please send them to .