A woman holds her head and throat while sitting on a sofa
(Pexels/ Pavel Danilyuk)

Half of Canadian employees reported they feel unprepared to stay home and self-isolate if they or a family member becomes sick with COVID-19, according to a new University of Guelph-led study.

Published this week in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, the study surveyed nearly 5,000 Canadians in May 2020 on their attitudes to public health measures, such as minimizing personal contacts and staying home when sick. The researchers aimed to understand the factors that affect Canadians’ confidence in their ability to comply with public health measures.

While the majority of respondents said they believed the public health measures were effective, many said they would be expected to go to work if sick.

“Only 51 per cent said their co-workers would not expect them to come to work even if ill, and only 51 per cent said they would still be paid if they had to self-isolate at home. That’s a significant proportion of the workforce who can’t stay home if needed,” said study lead author Gabrielle Brankston, a PhD student in U of G’s Department of Population Medicine.

Lead investigator Dr. Amy Greer noted that throughout this pandemic, Canadians have been asked to make extraordinary sacrifices to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2.

Gabrielle Brankston

“However, our data clearly show that not every person has the same ability to comply with public health guidance,” said Greer. “We know that to reduce transmission, we need people to be able to stay home when they are sick. As we now see increasing transmission in many parts of Canada, these data remain relevant and important even though they were collected almost a year ago.”

The researchers, who included U of G population medicine colleague Dr. Zvonimir Poljak, found that demographics was a significant factor in respondents’ ability to self-isolate when sick.

Younger individuals were more likely to report they had no access to paid sick leave and would be expected to go to work even if ill. Those with lower income, those who couldn’t work from home and those without paid sick leave were all less likely to feel confident that they could comply with measures.

“These findings reinforce the fact that if we want people to self-isolate to avoid spread, we need to provide more support for those who need to stay home but don’t have the means to do so,” said Brankston.

“In these cases, we may be asking people to choose between feeding their family or avoiding possible further disease spread. And we need to make avoiding disease spread the easy choice.”

There were some positive findings in the study.

headshot of Dr. Amy Greer
Dr. Amy Greer

Respondents were asked for their thoughts on the effectiveness of several health measures for preventing COVID-19 spread, and while results varied for each measure, agreement was at least 87 per cent.

“It was heartening to see that the vast majority of people reported both good knowledge and good attitudes about the measures,” said Brankston. “And you will remember the measures that were in place last May at the time of the survey were pretty strict. Masks were not commonplace, but schools were closed and most of Canada was just beginning to emerge from stay-at-home orders.”

The results offer only a snapshot of perceptions and attitudes, yet many of the findings about ability to comply are still relevant today as much of the country enters a third wave with COVID-19 variants that are even more transmissible, Brankston said.

“Although this survey was conducted almost a year ago, I think it will have application throughout this pandemic. We may cycle through further waves of this virus that will require further public health measures and the same issues about the need for self-isolation will come up again.”

Policies to address issues of public adherence to public health measures are needed, Brankston said, including social supports for those who need to self-isolate, changes in workplace policies to discourage “presenteeism” and targeted messaging for younger age groups.

If our collective priority is to maintain an open economy, we need to ensure that individuals are able to comply with public health measures that prevent and control transmission of the virus, she said.

Co-authors on the paper were Drs. David Fisman and Ashleigh Tuite of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health and Peter Loewen and Eric Merkley of U of T’s Department of Political Science.

Funding to support data collection was provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada, the National Collaborating Centre for Infectious Diseases and U of G.


Dr. Amy Greer

Gabrielle Brankston