I was working at Starbucks in 2016 when it announced mental health benefits would increase to $5,000 a year. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take advantage of these benefits when I needed them most.

I started journalism school that fall, and by Christmas break my mental health had taken a battering. I was frustrated with my studies and considered quitting. I was also barely scraping by financially, getting fewer hours at work than I’d been promised for months.

When taking out the garbage, I noticed ads for a psychologist a few floors up. One day, I decided to visit her office.

The good news was I could become a client, but since there was no direct billing option I’d have to pay for two hours of services upfront to get started. Though I’d get reimbursed by my insurer, this amounted to forking over about a full week of pay. Because direct billing is hard to come by for psychotherapy, and I lacked resources at the time to borrow the money or charge it on a credit card, I ultimately went without.

I ended up taking a second job at Pier 1 Imports during the break, sometimes working back-to-back shifts with Starbucks. The distraction from school and the extra money in my pocket helped relieve my stressors, making the work almost therapeutic. But usually this sort of work and pay grade exacerbates mental health issues rather than helping.

Two recent studies have drawn a link between mental health and minimum wage work, a connection obvious to Canada’s approximately 1.5 million minimum wage workers — or the estimated 21 per cent of Canadian employees earning less than $15 per hour — but less so to the general public.

Researchers at Emory University reported that even a $1 an hour increase in minimum wage can reduce suicides. Using data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. from 1990 to 2015, they noticed a 3.4 to 5.9 per cent suicide rate decrease among minimum wage workers between the age of 18 to 64 with a high school education or less. 

Another recent study, headed by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, focused on employee turnover but measured “customer mistreatment and its emotional effects.” Researchers surveyed retail and restaurant workers in the Philippines and call centre workers in Canada, finding a significant correlation between employee quit rates and mistreatment by customers.

“It starts accumulating, and eventually you hit the wall and say, ‘I’ve got to look for another job,’” co-author and Sauder School professor Daniel Skarlicki said in a release about the study. “Because if you don’t find a way to replenish those emotional resources, they deplete and you’ve got nothing left.”

‘Less valuable’ work

There’s lots of evidence linking mental health and wages. Canada’s public health agency notes that lower education and income is correlated with a higher rate of suicide. They found 7 per cent of people in the lowest income quintile have made plans for suicide compared to 3 per cent in the highest.

When the Ontario government struck a minimum wage advisory panel, the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario submitted recommendations reinforcing the link between wages and wellness. A 2016 study published in Health Economics found improved mental health of low-wage workers after the United Kingdom introduced a minimum wage. The effect was statistically comparable to an antidepressant. That same year, a feature in the American Psychological Association’s magazine asked if minimum wage reform should be a priority in the field, citing research and interviews with practitioners.

While discussing mental health is more normalized today, the relation between it and low-wage work is still a blind spot. I spent about 10 years on and off working low-paid retail and service jobs and found, even when talking with friends, that the conversations were often uncomfortable because the stories of stress I shared weren’t taken as seriously due to the nature of my work and the pay grade.

After turning my frustrations into a personal essay for a major outlet, the social media comments reinforced this divide: Apparently I had no right to complain because I’d chosen to do these jobs, and I had to be lacking ambition and intelligence to continue going into work.

Minimum wage work is treated as less valuable than other jobs in part because of these negative stereotypes. This further marginalizes a group comprising many disenfranchised workers, including racialized people, new immigrants, those with less formal education and young workers who may not fully understand their rights. There’s also a gender imbalance, as women make up about 60 per cent of Canada’s minimum wage workforce.

The question of how a “simple” job, paid at or over a threshold set by the government, contributes to the mental health troubles of workers may seem ludicrous to those far-removed from this sort of work. It shouldn’t.

Stressors around the clock

It’s been nearly 20 years since author Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Nickel and Dimed” shocked readers with the struggles of low-wage workers, but a lot of it still rings true. And while the “Fight for $15” has become a part of North American labour discourse, five provinces currently still have minimum wages between $11.32 and $11.65. Alberta is the only province or territory with a $15 adult minimum wage.

Rising costs in larger Canadian cities are causing affordability issues for those making well above minimum wage, putting those working at a big box store or fast food chain at a profound disadvantage.

In Vancouver, one of the world’s most expensive housing markets, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) calculates a living wage of $19.50 per hour, but British Columbia’s minimum wage is only $13.85. 

It’s not necessarily better elsewhere, either. A separate CCPA study found full-time minimum wage workers could rent an average one-bedroom apartment for 30 per cent of their earnings or less in only 9 per cent of 795 Canadian neighbourhoods. That number dropped to 3 per cent for a two-bedroom.

Aside from economic stresses outside of work, the nature of minimum wage labour is changing as expectations increase but wages don’t rise commensurately.

Workers deal with erratic schedules, understaffing, overburdening of tasks and unrealistic sales expectations, among other issues. In some places I’ve worked, employees are asked to leave early if the day’s sales are low. Employers are often large national or international companies with layers of managers designing tasks and performance indicators from an ivory tower, far from the realities of the cash wrap. The work doesn’t follow you home in the same way other jobs might, but the emotional and mental exhaustion lingers long after clocking out.

Customer demands have increased too. People like to joke online about the fictitious, easily-irritated customer Karen who wants to speak to a manager, but she’s not far from the truth. As every aspect of our lives is increasingly curated and personalized, customers now expect a level of service that isn’t possible when serving hundreds of people a day. Furthermore, companies poke the bear by understaffing or not keeping up inventory, leaving the lowest paid workers to deal with criticism when the illusion is broken.

If customers realized how much of the process is out of workers’ control, I think they’d be more forgiving. But until then it’s emotionally exhausting, as even one or two angry customers can deflate your mood for an entire day.

Politically popular rollbacks

There’s more than 20 years of data from a variety of institutions showing that minimum wage increases don’t result in increased business closures or unemployment. In fact, the numbers suggest better mental health has economic benefits.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada estimates mental health problems cost the Canadian economy more than $50 billion annually. Even cutting this figure by 10 per cent would be equivalent to putting similar revenues from the entire Canadian film and television or cannabis industries back into the economy, before calculating spinoff benefits.

But despite the strong business case, it’s politically popular to oppose empowering workers at the lower end of the wage spectrum.

Two of Canada’s most populous provinces elected premiers who’ve made minimum wage rollbacks. Ontario Premier Doug Ford cancelled the planned rise to a $15 an hour minimum wage, leaving it at $14. Ontario’s Financial Accountability Office found typical minimum wage earners lost about $400 a year thanks to this change. Furthermore, 800,000 workers, not earning enough to pay provincial income taxes, gained nothing from Ford’s low-income tax credit. Ford’s government has also made significant cuts to mental health services.

Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney slashed the student minimum wage, telling critics, “Thirteen bucks an hour — that’s a heck of a lot more than zero bucks an hour.” He’s also considering a minimum wage rollback for alcohol servers. 

Two provinces east, the Liberals and NDP promised Manitobans a $15 minimum wage if elected in their last provincial election. But Brian Pallister’s Progressive Conservatives were re-elected with no such plans, and the minimum wage remains one of the country’s lowest at $11.65.

The next steps

It’s not all doom and gloom. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have promised to increase the federal minimum wage to $15, but this applies to federally regulated private sector employees only. About 67,000 employees — 7.5 per cent of workers in that sector — making less than $15 will benefit.

Public support for increasing the minimum wage to $15 is strong in Canada, if a little uneven. A 2017 Angus Reid poll indicated 60 per cent of Ontarians supported a $15 wage, while a 2016 Forum Research poll suggested high national support, with the exception of the wealthiest.

The broader public, business owners and politicians alike must shift the framing of minimum wage discussions from being about economics to being about people. Looking at the costs and benefits individual workers and families face is the only way a non-economic benefit like improved mental health will get the focus it deserves.

There are few problems in the world that money alone can fix, but raising minimum wages is proven to ameliorate poor mental health, and a great place to start. The lives of minimum wage workers may be depending on a pay increase.

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