Getting back on track: Mental health and a return to the workplace

Canada Publication July 9, 2021

In our previous publication, “Are you okay?” Addressing employee mental health during challenging times, we addressed some of the key considerations employers may face with teleworking employees. As things continue to move in the right direction (vaccinations, declining infection numbers) employers and teleworking employees are contemplating a return to the physical workplace soon. This anticipated “return to normal” will likely be anything but normal, and it can be expected that managing anxiety and related challenges will be a regular challenge for employers and employees alike. 

Indeed, a Statistics Canada survey on mental health early in the pandemic showed 22% of Canadians were experiencing fair to poor mental health. A more recent poll conducted in May of this year for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, reported that nearly 44% of Canadians feel their mental health is worsening almost a year-and-a-half into the pandemic. 

In response to some of today’s realities, this piece highlights some key considerations employers should be aware of and monitor in an effort to protect the mental health of returning employees to the physical workplace. 

What mental health considerations may affect returning employees?

Employers should be aware of the following issues that may impact their employees’ mental health upon returning to the physical workplace: 

Distractions

Returning employees will be distracted. Indeed, many will have been at home for months, either teleworking, on job-protected leave, on temporary layoff, or for other reasons. It can be expected that for many employees, their normal workday routines have been turned upside down, with heightened home-related stresses.

Childcare Accommodations

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered many parents’ lives. While most childcare centres have reopened, many parents have altered their traditional approach to childcare to fit with their new reality and the evolving public health situation. 

Furthermore, with September around the corner, many parents may face issues and concerns with child-related accommodation. Depending on the extent to which schools and childcare centres across Canada accept children back on a full- or part-time basis, this year’s “back to school” may mean some added responsibilities on parents, namely to care of their children while at home. Of course, the evolving situation of various COVID-19 variants may also affect the nature and extent of a full return.

Tragedy

According to Health Canada and the World Health Organization, there have been approximately 26,300 COVID-related deaths across Canada and over 4 million worldwide. In some cases, tragedy may have hit close to home for some employees, namely those who lost a loved one during the pandemic. Given the restrictions in place until just recently, funerals and travel may have been difficult or impossible to organize. In these circumstances, it may be that the sense of closure from being together when grieving someone’s passing will not have occurred. 

New Workspaces

A Statistics Canada survey reported earlier in the pandemic that 6 in 10 Canadians would like to see the following measures at their workplace: 

  • modifications to their workspace for increased distance between employees; 
  • employers offering personal protective equipment; and 
  • employees being screened for signs of illness upon entry.

Indeed, since the onset of the pandemic, employers have had to reorganize or reimagine their workspaces to ensure appropriate distancing and implement other safety measures. For this reason, some employees won’t be returning to the physical workplace they once knew. In some cases, such changes, while reassuring in many regards, can be also be a shock and indeed a stark departure from what some employees were otherwise used to before the pandemic. Employees will have to quickly adapt to any new measures implemented within the workplace, and doing so may require energy, as well as patience.

Personnel Changes

Due to the economic effects of the pandemic many businesses experienced layoffs during the pandemic. This means some employees may be returning to differently constituted teams of coworkers in the workplace. Many will therefore have to establish new connections and may have to adjust to new organizational hierarchies and reporting structures. On a related note, some employees may also be concerned about their own future with the organization, including the possibility of termination due to ongoing restructuring.

What are some practical tips for mitigating and managing potential mental health risks in the workplace?

Employers can take the following steps to address the above-noted risks, and support employees and their mental health during their return to the workplace:

Promote Resources 

If access to health or benefit plans that include mental health support or other resources are available, employers would be well served to remind employees of them. Employers can also provide their employees with further resources in cases of emergency, such as the 24/7 Mental Health Crisis Line and compile and share resources from Canadian mental health leaders. For instance, the Canadian Mental Health Association has outlined a number of resources and ways to help individuals cope with stress and anxiety both inside and outside the workplace.

Monitor Behaviour 

As discussed in our previous publication, employers should remain vigilant in monitoring their employees’ behaviour to note changes. In most jurisdictions, employers have a duty to inquire into any sudden changes or irregular behaviour they notice in their employees before taking disciplinary action against them. Although not a statutory requirement per se, the duty to inquire was developed by human rights tribunals and has been confirmed by Canadian courts.

During the pandemic many employees lost the coping mechanism and supports they were accustomed to relying upon such as regular exercise, friends, co-workers, and family. In response, use of and possible dependence on alcohol and drugs have increased. As a result, employers should be mindful that some employees may be returning to work struggling with addiction.  

Provide Training

Employers should consider heightened organizational practices, training and direction for returning employees. This can in turn work to promote compliance with new health and safety measures, and foster reassurance and calmness while employees are dealing with COVID-related distractions and stressors. 

For example, managers can provide their employees with detailed agendas before workplace meetings. By following simple steps such as these, managers can foster a communicative workplace environment where employees feel reassured about their place and purpose within the organization. Likewise, employers should carefully consider how to train employees on new health and safety measures. Indeed, some employees may be concerned about health and safety issues in the workplace; letting them know they are being addressed seriously by management can certainly be beneficial.

Be Flexible 

Another way employers can aim to ease the stresses and anxieties of returning employees is to be mindful of workplace accommodation requests and needs, particularly for work hours and physical working location. Where reasonably practicable, employers may consider how employees can best be accommodated, including on family status grounds. Although such obligations may vary across Canada, such accommodation measures can include teleworking arrangements, flexible vacation schedules, and in some cases permitting the rollover of accrued vacation time.

Be Mindful in Communications

Employers should pay special attention when communicating with their employees, including when drafting emails. Indeed, email has, for many, become an essential means of communicating in the workplace; however, the downside of email is it can be misinterpreted in both tone and substance. For example, the sender of an allegedly “abrupt” email may in fact intend to convey nothing more than the instructions for a particular task. Yet, recipients may perceive the sender as being upset and short with them. This can unintentionally increase stresses in the workplace. Taking the time to write proper sentences and ensuring politeness in tone and form cannot be overlooked. 

Be aware and check in

Look out for signs that employees may be struggling, including with addiction and other related and underlying issues. Although attempting to obtain medical information comes with various legal risks and may well be an invasion of privacy, employers should not shy away from having appropriate conversations about employee wellness. 

Take-aways

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the Canadian workforce in many ways. Employees are returning to the workplace at a time when they face a variety of stresses and anxieties. Employers can do small, but particularly useful, things to support the mental health of their employees and ease their burden during this period of transition. Ultimately, it is in the employer’s best interest to be proactive and take steps to promote the positive mental health of its employees, above all at this time. 



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