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Supporting Employee Mental Health in Times of Uncertainty

Supporting Employee Mental Health in Times of Uncertainty

Supporting Employee Mental Health in Times of Uncertainty

As employers, proactively supporting employee mental health in the workplace is more important now than ever, as the impact of the pandemic continues to pose new challenges for businesses and employees. Overnight, we saw a need to adapt to a new way of living and working. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), only 32% of Canadian employees feel their organization’s leaders are addressing mental health in the workplace, and this number continues to rise as fears surrounding “what will come next” beyond this pandemic grow.

In times of crisis, especially one as far reaching as the COVID-19 pandemic, employers and people leaders should be carving out extra time to evaluate the mental health support your organization provides to your employees. This support can help your employees get through these difficult times, both personally, and professionally. There are three main pieces of advice from HR that we want to share with employers to help them better support their people; start with prevention and awareness, don’t be afraid to start a conversation, and know when and how to accommodate.

Start with prevention and awareness:

We know that when employees feel their best, they also perform their best. By fostering an environment focused on health and wellness, employers can reduced the stigma associated with mental illness while reinforcing the importance of self-care in order to be your best self.

Here are a few things your organization can do to focus on Health and Wellness

  • Form a Workplace-Wellness Committee
  • Establish equitable policies and procedures
  • Consider offering flexibility of schedules and work locations
  • Encourage positive social interaction and relationship building
  • Treat others with respect, fairness, honesty, trust
  • Promote positive communication at all levels of the organization
  • Develop a plan to promote ongoing growth and achievement opportunities

Reducing the stigma starts from the top – Leaders need to promote a caring and empathic attitude towards mental health needs and overall employee wellness. One-way Leaders can do this, is through monitoring employee stress levels, helping employees avoid “burn-out” and looking for warning signs of a decreasing ability to be resilient. These warning signs may include severe changes in behaviour, physical health, attitude/mood and performance.

Given the uncertain and stressful impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employers are implementing wellness initiatives and/or electing to provide their people with an Employee Assistance Program and other trusted resources.

Don’t be afraid to start a conversation:

If an employee might not be comfortable coming forward about an accommodation need, and you notice a change in an employee’s health and wellness, you have a legal duty to have a conversation with them and inquire. This duty stems from the fact that although an employer need not have actual knowledge of an employee’s disability or other need for accommodation however, the critical question is; “whether the employer was aware or ought reasonably to have been aware of the employee’s health issues”.  

When planning to have this crucial conversation with an employee who you may be concerned is struggling, there are many aspects to consider such as, confidentiality, private location and appropriate timing of the conversation, as well as how to best approach the conversation.

How to approach a conversation will vary case by case, and the better you know the person the easier it will be to adjust your approach based on their preferences. Below are some best practices from an HR perspective to have this conversation:

  • Be ready to enter the conversation with an open mind and an open heart by recognizing and letting go of any biases or prejudices you hold towards the situation
  • Do more listening than talking by asking open ended, non-probing questions. Do not ask questions that could infringe on the rights, dignity, or privacy of the employee
  • Start simple by asking “How are you doing?” and/or “You don’t seem yourself lately, are you ok?”
  • Acknowledge the employee’s feelings and do not cast judgement on the responses
  • Offer support and show you genuinely care by asking what you can do to help them manage what they are going through
  • Work together to develop a shared action plan, this can be as easy as asking “What would be a good first step for us to take?”

Know when and how to accommodate:

The Ontario Human Rights Code ( the “Code”), defines mental health as a disability under the prohibited grounds of discrimination. This means employers have a legal obligation to adjust rules, policies, or practices to enable full participation for any persons who identify under one or more of the prohibited grounds of discrimination.

Having said that, there  is no “one-size fits all option” when it comes to how an employer should go about accommodating as each situation and individual involved is unique and requires a case-by- case solution. Both parties must work together to find a reasonable solution and accommodation plan. Finding the right accommodation plan is not easy and requires an open-mind, creativity, and flexibility. In some situations, accommodation may not be possible, and this would result in “undue hardship” for the employer. However, there is a very high threshold for an employer to demonstrate that they have exhausted all reasonable options. The key point is accommodation discussions may be uncomfortable, but this is a necessary part of ensuring you can respect the rights and unique needs of the employee while maintaining the needs of your business.

Supporting mental health in the workplace has many mutual benefits for employers and employees. Employees will feel safe to be honest about their mental health and wellness needs which will allow them to thrive and be their most productive, happy, and healthy self. Employers can gain peace of mind, knowing, they have taken proactive steps to support their employees through the most challenging times.

Authored by:
Johanna Van Bilsen, Learning and Development Coordinator
Nadia Chamberlain, HR Consultant