This week, we participated in a Safe Work Manitoba webinar “Practical Tips – Mentally Healthy Workplaces During COVID-19.” ​COVID-19 has brought about many changes to our lives: working from home, changes to our work environment, childcare issues, isolation from family, friends and colleagues, new “co-workers” (i.e. kids, pets or spouses), a pandemic!

Adapting to all of these changes can be challenging and may have an impact on our mental health. Through a discussion of 10 topics ranging from communicating effectively to mitigating stigma and pandemic fatigue, presenters Jennifer Dyck and Michael Pogorzelec highlighted the value of supporting one another during this challenging time.

“Keep in mind that there will be range of reactions to the pandemic — both individual and workplace — and those reactions can be radically different from one person or environment to the next. For individuals, how they cope with all the changes we’re facing will depend on background experiences, other factors present in their lives, the type of workplace they’re in (essential or non-essential, on-site or virtual, supportive or not), and whether they’ve previously lived through some type of trauma.”

When we talk about workplace reactions to COVID-19, we’re referring to the ways that an employer responds to the strain and operational demands brought on by the pandemic, and if they’re demonstrating meaningful support to their employees.

Think about your own workplace…Did your organization respond swiftly to address the physical hazards and assess mental health risks? Is employee well-being at the centre of all decision-making? Is there clear and consistent communication, and investment of resources to ensure everyone has the tools they need to work successfully and be comfortable? Are there frequent reminders about available support and resources?

Now more than ever, we see just how crucial it is to foster a workplace culture that champions positive mental health. According to the Tanner Institute’s 2020 Global Culture Report, 81 per cent of Canadian respondents reported feeling some degree of burnout last year. A term that used to be reserved for health care workers saddled with high-demand, high-emotion professions and long hours, burnout is now applied to workers and industries of all types. And the relationship is clear: A thriving culture is typically characterized by a visible commitment to safety from managers, transparency, a striving for continual improvement, and an engagement of the entire workforce. And those are the environments with higher overall engagement levels and less burnout.

Amid the looming threat of COVID-19, regular and open communication with consistent messaging is paramount, and we should encourage people to stay connected and open while respecting confidentiality. Leaders need to be able to identify if an employee is struggling — and that should only be done through observable behaviours — the signs that can point to or suggest an underlying concern. Observable behaviours can include increased absenteeism, emotional outbursts, decreased productivity, decreased quality of work, errors in judgment, and the like, but being aware of performance-related issues like these can be tougher if a team that used to operate in person is suddenly dispersed, working remotely, and facing new ways of communicating.

This is where conversation starters come in. The Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) recommends the following five steps to getting the conversation going:

  1. Approach & assess – “Is everything OK with you? I’m quite concerned that you just don’t seem yourself lately, and that’s two times now that I’ve seen you have a confrontation with Sam. And last week, you missed a really important deadline. This isn’t like you. Is there something you need to share or that you want to talk about?”
  2. Listen without judging – Do not attempt to solve an employee’s issue, dismiss it as petty or unimportant, or diagnose a mental health problem that you believe an individual may be living with. Allow an employee space to share without trying to direct or control the outcome.
  3. Give reassurance – “This is an extremely difficult experience we’re all living through right now, and none of us could ever have been fully prepared for the stress and challenges it has presented. We are all struggling in our own way, and there is nothing to be ashamed about. Can you talk to me a little bit about what’s going on for you at work and home?”
  4. Encourage other supports – “I really want to make sure that you are supported and that you have someone you can lean on. Can you tell me who is at home or in your life who can be a solid friend to you right now? Or even just a practical support? Maybe you need someone to help you with household chores, groceries, child care, so you can have a much-needed break?”
  5. Encourage professional help – “I want to remind you that you have benefits through work, so make sure to use them. You can access a relaxation massage when it’s safe to do so, or counselling in your community, and you can contact the confidential employee assistance program any time for practical support. Sometimes an outside perspective can help you sort through some tough issues, and give you some good tips to help you manage the emotions. Here’s the contact info for the EAP.”

Dyck and Pogorzelec remind us to make sure we’re providing credible and accurate information about COVID-19 prevention and risks, and promoting the fundamentals as we all begin to lose interest in practicing them consistently. We need to lead by example, practice self-care, and prepare for life in the workplace after the pandemic. 

“We must keep in mind that once COVID-19 is under control, we will still be dealing with complex workplace issues. Employers may need to continue offering flexible, work-from-home arrangements depending on physical distancing requirements, comfort levels, vaccinations, etc. They may also need to accommodate immune-compromised employees and those struggling with mental health related concerns. Employers may need to acknowledging the very real possibility of burnout among essential workers, and recognize that going back into work may be very difficult and anxiety-producing for some.”

In a year of uncertainty, the MHCC recommends focusing on short-term goals while leaving room for the long-term, balancing pleasure with purpose, aligning our goals with personal values, and giving ourselves grace.

As for employers, the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) training, A Hazard is a Hazard, is an excellent tool, and if your workplace hasn’t done so already, you may wish to consider implementing the MHCCs National Standard for Psychological Safety in the Workplace.

Safe Work Manitoba webinars are available free of charge and are pre-recorded for viewing any time. Click here to view an archive.

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