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An impossible juggling act

Because the effects of the pandemic are not felt equally, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) is turning its attention to populations that are disproportionately affected — including women.

“Women make up the majority of our organization,” said Karla Thorpe, the MHCC’s vice-president of Public Affairs and Organizational Performance. “Every day over the last year, we’ve been hearing from female staff in particular about having to juggle an impossible number of tasks, and we need to recognize that these realities have mental health ramifications.”

Thorpe herself is all-too-familiar with the mental toll arising from the COVID era’s push and pull.

“Personally, this past year was among the most challenging I’ve weathered. I had to move my elderly parents into a care home at the height of the pandemic. With long days of Zoom meetings, followed by caregiving visits in full PPE, there were times when normalcy felt so far out of reach,” she recalled. “Yet, I recognize my own good fortune. The challenge for those who have had to take longer-term leaves or don’t have the luxury of paid time off is even more complex. This is especially true for people without the resources to seek the support they need.”

A disproportionate toll
Women are no stranger to the role of primary caregivers, which is why up to one-third of working mothers have considered quitting their jobs since the onset of COVID. And the weight of leaving the workforce can be a heavy burden.

That’s why the MHCC created a mini-guide specifically designed to support the mental wellness of women who have been sidelined from the workforce, whether by pandemic business closures, caregiving, or other responsibilities.

Liz Horvath, manager of the MHCC’s Workplace Mental Health team, was game to support this resource from the word go. “I’ve walked a mile in those shoes,” she said, referring to a dark time when she was waitressing to support her child as a single mother. “I was studying, working, parenting, and all the time made to feel that my contributions weren’t valued, weren’t worthy. I was considered “just” — as in just a waitress. I was on a treadmill that was grinding me down.

But when I left that work in search of some greater meaning, I was faced with significant barriers despite the valuable knowledge and skills I had gained as a single mother, a waitress, and a student,” she explained. “The constant struggle wore down my resilience and left me in a state of crushing depression, at a time when stigma was very high and access to support services was really limited.”

Recalibrating for mental wellness
Yet there are ways, Horvath acknowledged, to walk a path of unemployment without losing confidence and connection. Equally, there are ways to create some space for self-care, even when the scales are tipped heavily toward workaday realities. 

“Staying connected sounds trite, but it’s so important,” she said. “Whatever your area of work, from front-line service to the corner office, there are online groups or forums, volunteer opportunities, career counselling, and online aptitude tests. Embracing these types of connections, when I could, was very helpful.”

Thorpe concurred, adding that, “for women, confidence can be a stumbling block, especially during times of unemployment. That’s one reason we designed this resource to help women reframe their thinking. A gap in a CV is an opportunity to demonstrate experience that was gained outside the workplace. A set of skills we’ve learned in one area can be applied to another — because it’s our capacity to learn and grow that’s important.”

The mini-guide is an easy-to-use reference guide, with practical tips and resources on everything from mental health supports to financial literacy.

“In the winter, the MHCC had created a tip sheet to help employers support and welcome women returning to work after an absence,” said Horvath. “But we realized there was still an important gap to fill. What about the wellness of women during that time away? How can we make sure they feel supported?”

Supporting each other
For Thorpe, being a woman in a leadership position comes with an added responsibility. “As a female leader, I want to help break down the systemic barriers women continue to face in the workplace. Too often women take themselves out of the running for a job without even applying. Or we don’t ask for mentorship or we fail to negotiate a raise. As leaders, male and female, some of the onus for changing our systems, processes, and cultures at work to accommodate the realities of women’s lives — so we get the best possible talent — is on us.”

Horvath agrees, and is hopeful that resources like the new mini-guide will help women see their futures in a brighter light. “Taking an absence from the workforce comes with all kinds of challenges, but it also brings fresh opportunities. With the right support, the ending of one chapter can lead to a better one. I know it did for me.”

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