Mental health impacts during a crisis
Psychologist's Office

During the COVID-19 Pandemic, it has never been more critical for employers to support their employees’ mental health in the workplace. In these uncertain times, regular work rules do not apply, and many concerns require careful consideration.

Mental health is an essential component of overall health. If mental health is impacted, it would be difficult to maintain good physical health. There is a complex interaction of environmental, biological, genetic, and personality factors that cause mental illnesses. In order for mental illness to be accepted in the workplace and community, education and understanding is required to remove the stigma of mental illness and eliminate discrimination.

 

“Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes their abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to contribute to their community.” – World Health Organization (WHO)

Statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA)

  • One in Five Canadians are impacted by mental health problems in any given year

  • At least 500,000 Canadians are unable to work each week due to mental health reasons

  • The cost of a disability leave due to a mental health illness is approximately double the cost of a physical illness

  • It is estimated that the economic burden of mental illness is related to lost productivity, healthcare costs, and reduced quality of life

  • In 2019, the CMHA reported that 2.5% of Canadians indicated that they had suicidal thoughts

  • During the Pandemic, the CMHA reported that 1 in 20 Canadians polled reported having suicidal thoughts which is an increase of 6% from the previous year

  • Employees with low mental fitness are at risk of having cognitive impairment which may result in an increased risk of accidents

Mental Health and Working Remotely

Mental health levels are determined by a combination of biological, social, and psychological factors. Other contributing factors include life experiences, family history of mental health, and brain chemistry. Mental health is poorly impacted by gender discrimination, stressful working conditions, poor physical health, social inclusion, rapid social change, and violations of human rights. As noted above, 1 in 5 adults suffers from some form of mental illness at any given time. That means, with a staff of 100 employees, at least 20 of them will be experiencing a mental illness!

Empathy, flexibility, and understanding are essential in supporting your employees’ success. As many employers have implemented remote work as a viable option for their employees, this allows the flexibility for staff members to continue working in a safe environment while still earning a paycheque. However, while the stress of commuting to work and exposure to COVID-19 is minimized, there are other concerning stressors. Some may feel isolated and less connected to their co-workers while others may feel that going to their workplace is a refuge away from the stressors within their homes. This can involve domestic abuse and/or being overwhelmed by completing work and home tasks.

Consistent communication between employers and employees is critical to ensure that you are aware of your employees’ individual needs. This can be easily accomplished through preference of phone, video call, instant message, or email. It is important to pay attention to any changes in productivity, engagement, or shifts in behaviours that may indicate mental health challenges.

 

Crisis Management

 

The current pandemic has forced many employers to face tough decisions such as temporary layoffs, reduction in work hours, implementation of remote work, and temporary closures of their businesses. The focus on flexibility and empathy have been crucial to leadership during a crisis. Many employees have been faced with taking care of sick family members who may have contracted COVID-19, home-schooling or providing childcare for their children.

There are many questions and considerations to ponder:

  • Were employees who were transitioned to work remotely provided the required tools and resources?

  • Were employees provided autonomy and trust to do their work?

  • Was there consideration provided to employees who needed to care for other family members in addition to their own mental and physical well-being?

  • If there was a requirement to terminate employees, was it performed in an empathetic and respectful manner

 

As uncertainty has an impact on an individual’s mental health, even those who have not previously dealt with mental health issues may now be affected. Employers can support healthy mental well being in a number of ways. Transparent communication is essential for continuity of business plans, potential job loss, pay reductions, and benefit changes. Communication should be relayed quickly to alleviate any issues of anxiety related to these uncertainties. This can be relayed through many methods such as town halls, small group meetings, or individual conversations. We are not operating in a “business as usual” environment and likely will not be for some time. Being attuned to and acknowledging your employees’ fears, concerns, and feelings is important. Check in regularly with them individually to ask how they are dealing with changes relating to remote work, shutdowns, day care/school closures, and lock downs.

 

The Employer’s Role

The Human Resources Professional focuses on working with employers to promote the care of their employees. Stress is the primary cause of mental health issues that are work-related. Employers need to take the necessary steps to support their employees’ mental health needs starting with establishing a supportive organizational culture. A strong organizational culture consists of the demonstration that diversity, equity, and inclusion are valued; that employees are individuals whose lives are valued within and outside of the workplace; that employees are not consistently over-worked; that there is no stigma regarding conversations about mental health; that there is a mental health policy with detailed provisions on sick days, bereavement, and employee assistance resources; that taking vacation time or mental health days is encouraged; and that any negative language or behaviour relating to mental illnesses will not be tolerated.

Some early indicators that an employee may be suffering from a mental health issue include: an increase in absenteeism and/or being consistently late for work, a decline in performance a decreased level of engagement, a display of behaviour that is out of character, and/or possible changes in medical treatments. Whenever an employer suspects a disability, they should take steps to confirm whether a disability exists and take steps to accommodate the disability to the point of undue hardship. This involves obtaining medical documentation that provides details of the conditions with associated limitations, restrictions, and precautions as well as prospect of improvement.

Going Forward

Mental Health and Wellness is more important than ever as we all face constant uncertainty. Employers are responsible for the well being and mental health of their employees in addition to maintaining profitability and good customer relationships. During these times of uncertainty, having flexibility, empathy and open lines of communication help establish workplaces that are conducive to good mental health.

 

As experienced human resources consultants, we are available to assist with any policies, processes, and mental health and wellness programs to promote a mentally healthy workplace.

 

 

 

Resources:

Mental health: strengthening our response (who.int)

Mental Health in the Workplace During Times of Uncertainty (ultimatesoftware.com)

Fast Facts about Mental Illness - CMHA National

Suicide Prevention Service - 833-456-4566