By Dr. Bill Howatt and Louise Bradley
Governments are beginning to loosen restrictions and some businesses are firing up their engines again. If you are leading one of these operations, you will be required to implement many new protocols to protect the physical and psychological safety of staff, both as a group and as individuals.
The work 2.0 reboot will become the new normal for workplaces, and while it may spur many good things - renewed energy for employees who have felt drained by isolation, innovation, enhanced processes and procedures - it will also require you to be acutely aware of employees’ needs and the way you can support, and ideally, positively impact their mental health as they move through this new phase of the crisis.
To do this successfully, it is important to have plans in place that reduce mental harm and promote mental health and wellness.
Start by considering the possible mindset of your employees when they return to your workplace
COVID-19 has affected all of us differently. It would be naive to assume that all employees have had the same experience, and until you’ve had the opportunity to observe and consult them, you won’t really know how each individual has been impacted or the support they require. However, you can anticipate that they will possibly fall into the following broad categories:
- Excited - This group of employees are excited to get back to the workplace and re-establish social connections they’ve been missing. They will adhere to the rules out of respect for others, but may not be not overly concerned about catching COVID-19. These individuals likely have not been directly impacted by COVID-19 and may have experienced the crisis as more of an inconvenience than anything else. And if they were still being paid, they may even return to the workplace buoyed by what they accomplished over the last couple of months, such as saving more money and reducing expenses.
- Worried - Conversely, this group of employees may be anxious and worried about catching COVID-19. Coming back to the workplace will likely trigger anxiety - for some it may be low and for others it might be extremely high. The degree of anxiety will predict the extent to which they adhere to new protocols and whether they are hypervigilant about boundaries. They will be extremely focused on following new COVID-19 workplace standards. This will likely weigh heavily on them and will require an enormous amount of energy to get through their day.
- Tentative - Some may feel concerned and excited in equal measure. They may be happy at the prospect of coming back, but unsure about what it will mean and how they will fare with new protocols and procedures. And, in some cases, the terms of re-employment may present some new stressors (for example, some employees are being asked to sign a contract saying they won’t go anywhere but work and home until further notice).
- Strained - These individuals have had one or more bad experiences as a result of COVID-19, such as separation, money problems, or mental health challenges from feeling isolated and lonely. They may be feeling more fatigued, irritated and edgy, and may be at risk of experiencing more serious mental health issues. In some cases, they may not have experienced the full fallout as yet, and it may culminate when they are back in the workplace.
- Trauma - Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing event that falls outside of normal experience. Sadly, there are some employees who will arrive back to the workplace having suffered a traumatic experience, such as the death of someone close, domestic abuse, and possibly, PTSD. Some may be experiencing high levels of stress and symptoms that are affecting their quality of life and ability to function normally. And, due to delayed onset, there are some employees who may have suffered trauma, but are not yet experiencing any symptoms.
Prepare managers and take stock of the supports you have in place
As a leader, you need to be ready for all of these possibilities. It may be beneficial to complete an inventory of the supports you have in place to help each individual. You should also prepare and, if necessary, train the other leaders in your organization so they are ready to provide the appropriate support. Articulate your expectations and remind managers that their team members may not return as they left eight weeks ago. Let them know that you’re committed to helping them help their teams, and share tools and resources that are available.
Communicate, communicate, communicate - Tell employees about your commitment to their physical and psychological safety and demonstrate it by reinforcing safe habits and being available if they want to raise concerns. Talk about the safety protocols you have in place (if you need help with this, check out the WSPS COVID-19 sector-specific health and safety guidance documents). Remember that if employees doubt your commitment to physical health and safety, it could wreak havoc on their mental health.
Remind your teams of any support programs you have in place - If you don’t have progams in place that would be useful, consider investing in them, such as mental fitness and resiliency programs. If you haven’t already, you may want begin training, or if you have previously provided training, you might want to consider refresher sessions.
Tap into the many free resources currently available - Let the other leaders in your organization and your team members know about the other resources available through this site (many are available at no cost), such as online cognitive behavior therapy, and anxiety support services.
Help connect employees with the right support - Make sure you are ready to connect those who require additional support with psychological and paramedical psychological services, EFAP, and community resources for issues with domestic violence and abuse, substance abuse, etc., if needed.
Beverley Raphael is a Professor of Population Mental Health and Disasters and Director of the Centre for Disasters. She is also the author of When Disaster Strikes: How Individuals and Communities Cope with Catastrophe. It is helpful to consider her model, the Phases of Response to Disaster and where we are on the bell curve when you’re considering your employees’ needs as they return to work.
At this point in the COVID crisis, we have not fully worked through the Disillusionment phase. And we can’t be sure how long it will take. It could be another 12 to 24 months. We also don’t know how the situation will be resolved - whether there will be a vaccine or if cases will simply plateau. What we do know is that mental health in Canada has been negatively impacted. More than four in ten Canadians report they have felt stress regularly (33%) or all the time (13%) in the last month because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
We won’t truly know the full extent of COVID-19’s impact on our collective mental health for some time. In some cases, issues will become more problematic as time wears on and the fatigue and strain of what has happened is more fully realized. We are all feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how long this will last and what the future holds. However, as leaders, you can continue to be accessible and transparent with employees, available to answer questions and address concerns, and ready to support them at every step of this next phase of the journey.