Do you remember the feelings you had as a child when you returned to school after summer vacation? Were there flutters of anxiety, nerves, or maybe even a sleepless night or two? Many of us still experience these feelings as adults when we think about having to return to work from any extended time away. Now think about these feelings being escalated by additional levels of fear, as employees begin to be called back to work with the ease of current COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
As noted in this article in OHS Canada magazine, the mental health of workers must be a priority when welcoming back employees, who have to return to work in some kind of physical capacity during the pandemic. The employer continues to have a heightened duty of care that comes with ensuring the placement of proper health and safety protocols, especially those that centre on the assessment and responses required for reducing psychosocial hazards. The mental health stressors on employees resulting from the COVID-19 crisis must be recognized for the hazards they are, and appropriate remedies must be put in place to reduce the risk of deteriorating mental health for all workers.
Embedded in the article is a podcast worth listening to. It features an interview with Emma Ashurst, manager of inquiries and technical services with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety. The content of the podcast focuses specifically on the employers’ responsibilities when implementing sound mental health strategies for managing the workplace during the pandemic. The starting point is always to check in on employees and to ask how they are coping. Many workers are overwhelmed as a result of pandemic-related increases in workload, forced isolation, and the lack of human or social contact.
During this time, the risk of increases in depression and anxiety is significant. As Ashurst states, it is imperative that managers look for signs of changes in an employee’s behaviour that may be an indicator of increased levels of burnout, stressors, and fears. She goes on to describe the employer’s duty to ensure that employees’ fears about returning to work be met with proactive support instead of a punitive reaction. The employer can do this through clear communication about cleaning protocols, ergonomic set-ups, and regular and routine communications that all assist in the management of fear. Employees cannot work if they are afraid. When an employer can alleviate fears by providing a safe physical work environment, this allows for a safe mental health environment as well.
It is also incumbent upon the employer to ensure that they are following protocols, rules, and regulations driven by jurisprudence. The employer should do this not only to show compliance with legal requirements, but also because the adherence to and communication of the ‘rules’ helps most people find comfort in structure during what continues to be a chaotic time.
Finally, as part of the most important message that Ashurst reiterates, now is the time to treat each other with grace, kindness, compassion, and connection.
- As a Health and Safety professional, what steps would you put into place to help workers overcome pandemic-related fears as part of a return-to-work strategy?
- In your opinion, what impact does ongoing isolation have on employees who must continue to work from home, even as the pandemic-related restrictions begin to ease?
- As you think about your own return to work or to in-class learning, what are areas of potential anxiety for you? How will you manage your own personal concerns? What supports are in place for you from either your employer or your post-secondary institution?