OHS Canada Magazine

Reopening during COVID-19? Consider your employees’ mental health

Considerate and careful strategy will be important for staff morale


As COVID-19 restrictions loosen and more businesses are allowed to reopen, some employees may be anxious about returning to work during a pandemic.

The past few months have been a stressful time for many and adapting to changes when returning to work might be an additional challenge for some employees.

Employers have an obligation to protect their employees’ health and safety in the workplace and this should also involve consideration for their mental health and wellbeing.

Hope McManus, head of health and safety at Peninsula Canada, an HR consultancy in Toronto, says mental health should be a priority for employers when welcoming back workers.

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“Employers should support their employees’ wellbeing by implementing health and safety practices in the workplace, providing mental-health resources and demonstrating empathy when addressing workers’ concerns,” she says. “To help employees cope better, business owners should be transparent about safety in the workplace and provide training, education and updates on government guidelines for businesses.”

Fear and anxiety about returning to work may be caused by uncertainty and feeling unprepared. Employers can help assure workers by providing training, education and updated workplace documentation when reopening their businesses.

“New health and safety policies, updated employee handbooks, posters in the workplace and social-distancing markers will help assure employees that steps are being taken to protect their safety,” says McManus.

“Training on new health and safety practices, such as increased hygiene and how to use personal protective equipment, will help employees feel more confident and in control of their own safety.”

Management should acknowledge that there might be anxiety among workers and should encourage them to voice their concerns. To catch early sign of mental distress, employers should watch for behavioural and performance changes. Demonstrating compassion, empathy and flexibility during this time is important in making workers feel supported and valued.

“With everything that is going on in the world right now, people might be feeling overwhelmed and unable to concentrate on work,” she says. “Employees may be less motivated and productive due to anxieties or personal reasons related to COVID-19, and as a result performance levels may be affected.”

“To show understanding, managers can lower KPI, targets and reduce workloads temporarily to ensure employees do not burn out while struggling to keep up with their regular work pace,” says McManus. “As another example of support, management can be flexible with working hours for remote workers who have children staying at home.”

Consider remote workers

Employees returning to their physical workplace may not be the only ones to experience mental-health concerns.

Remote workers may feel isolated and lonely, especially if they live alone and the workplace was an important source of social interaction for them. To prevent these feelings from developing into mental illnesses, employers should strive to keep their remote workers well connected and integrated when working.

“Employers should regularly check in with their remote workers via more personal mediums such as video conferencing or phone calls, as opposed to messaging and email,” according to McManus. “Scheduling too many group meetings can have a reverse effect and overwhelm individuals who aren’t used to such methods of communication. Employees are more likely to open up about their concerns in a one-on-one conversation with management.”

Employees should also be informed of other forms of support available to them, such as counselling through an Employee Assistance Program, benefits in their health plans and government resources.

Physical wellbeing and having structure to the day with a routine will also help employees cope better, she says.

“Management can encourage employees that take their breaks, finish work on time, eat healthy, get exercise and go outside. Employers can also suggest some good habits for remote workers, such as creating a designated working area and getting dressed for the workday, to help with productivity.”

A considerate and careful reopening strategy will be important for staff morale and ultimately the success of the business.

A workforce that feels valued is likely to be more productive and get business back on track despite any operational challenges.

Employers should not underestimate the importance of employees’ mental health and wellbeing during this unprecedented time.

Kristina Vassilieva is an HR writer for Peninsula Canada in Toronto.