CALGARY -- A new study suggests the stress levels of Calgarians have hit a record high as economic conditions worsen and unemployment rises.

From 2008 to 2019, researchers at the University of Calgary examined the stress levels of 48,000 clients at the Calgary Counselling Centre during their first visit to see a therapist.

According to their findings, distress levels have increased as employment numbers dwindled over the past decade

"That’s maybe not surprising, although I was struck by how tight and reliable that relationship is," said Ron Kneebone, an economics professor with the university.

"What we anticipate a year from now is that if this COVID pandemic ends, stress will still be high because a lot of people are still out of work, but also because I think people’s health is going to be worsened by this experience."

The paper began tracking data in 2008 when the employment rate was74 per cent, which was accompanied by a stress level rating of 72.

Stress levels are determined by the client's answers to a questionnaire at their first counselling session, which can rank stress levels on a scale from zero to 180. The higher the score, the more distressed the client is.

Seventy-two is the global average for first sessions.

As oil prices crashed in 2014, the employment rate dropped to 69 per cent and stress levels increased to 74.

By 2019, stress levels jumped to a score of nearly 80, as employment fell to about the 68 per cent range.

Unemployment and stress

Coping with stress has been especially difficult for those Calgarians without a job.

Diana Polowick has been an actress for the past eight years, but her anxiety is getting worse because she hasn’t been able to find work since the summer of 2019.

"My stress levels are off the charts and now with COVID-19 I don’t know if there’s ever going to be work again for me in Alberta in my lifetime," she said.

"I’m in my 50s and still working on the retirement aspect of my life as well and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to retire."

Meanwhile, younger professionals like Madison Dejardins have also struggled.

The single mother lost both of her jobs on March 16 when the climbing centre and gym she was working at temporarily closed.

"My stress went from probably a six to a nine our 10 since COVID and it’s been a whole new game of trying to play daycare as well as trying to adjust to different situations where I can’t necessarily entertain myself or a three-year-old," she said.

"It’s been hard money-wise as well to make sure ends meet and difficult to do so with the uncertainty of when I’ll get back to work again.”

More people seek councelling

CEO of the Calgary Counselling Centre, Robbie Babins-Wagner says the stress levels her facility has seen in clients visiting for the first time are unprecedented.

"Unfortunately we’ve seen those stress levels grow higher and higher since the oil collapse," she said.

"Seventy-two is the global average for our stress level questionnaire so for that number to have grown to 80 is a real concern for us in Calgary and it’s not being seen anywhere else around the world with my peers.” Unemployment-related calls to the centre reached a peak at 16 per cent in 2016 and dropped down to 12.4 per cent in 2018, but Babbins-Wagner says those numbers continue to increase.

In 2019, client registration at the centre also reached 11,232 — up from 9,676 in 2018.

Although there’s a higher demand for therapy, Babbins-Wagner adds that Calgarians can still do a lot at home to help cope with stress.

"Now that the weather is so nice, you can do things like get out for a walk because you might bump into someone you know and as long as you maintain social distance that’s perfectly acceptable," she said.

"We recommend as well trying to do something for someone else, so if you know of a senior who is alone for example, give them a call."