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A check-in on mental health and COVID-19 in the workplace

February 10, 2021

Whether employees have continued to work on-site, recently returned to the office, or are continuing with telework, it’s safe to say that we are all in a state of pandemic exhaustion.

The recent edition of a mental health index report found that December 2020 had the lowest mental health scores since the pandemic began. On top of managing the impact on their own lives, nearly two-fifths of Canadian workers reported that they are concerned about a co-worker’s mental health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

As for telework, the extended isolation from co-workers, longer work hours, and trying to separate work and home life has caused physical and mental anxiety, burnout and stress. The financial difficulties that both employees and businesses face as lockdown measures and extended layoffs persist also creates uncertainty about the future. As a result, the report found that the lowest mental health scores were among people who reported job uncertainty as the most stressful part of adapting at work during the pandemic. This was followed by overwork and then a change in work location as the most stressful factors in work situations.

Duty to address mental health needs

Even in a remote work setting, an employer must meet its accommodation obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code (or the federal Canadian Human Rights Act), and its obligations under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA) (or the federal Canada Labour Code).

Under OHSA, employers have a duty to take reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of employees in the workplace. This can also include the home if the employee is working there, particularly in situations of workplace violence or domestic violence. Employers should maintain check-ins and processes to ensure that an employee’s mental wellbeing is also given due care while working remotely.

Similarly, an employer’s duty to accommodate an employee under human rights legislation extends to both on-site and remote workplaces. Employers need to make efforts, short of creating undue hardship, to accommodate the needs of an employees that fall under protected grounds. This can include providing workspace aides, flexible hours for child or elder care needs, or other accommodations.

Employers have a positive duty to inquire when there are signs that an employee is having trouble in their daily work and interactions. To help employees manage their stress, employers should remain open to accommodating requests that can help alleviate sources of stress, such as continuing to offer remote work options, leaves of absence, or allow flexible or modified work hours.

Creating a positive workplace

Other ideas to promote a positive mental health in the workplace are to:

  • compile a list of the supports available to employees from the employer as well as other organizations. This includes reminding employees of existing health plans or employee assistance programs, and providing resources like this list from the Canadian Mental Health Association
  • train the other leaders in your organization about what to spot in employees and how to provide the appropriate support
  • communicate expectations and remind supervisors or managers that everyone has had different experiences of this pandemic so there is no “one size fits all” solution
  • establish regular check-ins so that managers have one-on-one time with employees and can have time to address any needs
  • create virtual team building exercises, which can be as simple as having lunch together over Zoom or a suitable physical activity challenge
  • monitor workloads and hours of work. It’s reported that employees are working longer hours at all hours of the day. While some of this is to manage other obligations, such as childcare, some of it is based on a change in expectations for manageable workloads which employers have the power to monitor and alleviate.