Mental Health Matters


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.

Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?

Return to work. Too much? Too soon?

Injured man using computer

A fundamental element in any workplace safety program includes a return to work process for employees who have been injured on the job. In Ontario, clear policy guidelines are established by the Workers Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB). These policies identify the steps required by all parties to ensure a successful ‘Work Reintegration’ process following a work-related injury.


Click here to read the steps required for the WSIB Work Reintegration program.

This particular program, and others like it in different jurisdictions across Canada, is based on extensive research and seemingly sound principles, that should honour everyone in the process including the injured worker. The reality of implementation, however, paints a different picture of how a poorly managed return to work program can have a devastating effect on the long-term recovery by the injured worker, especially when the injured individual’s credibility is called into question.

The Toronto Star recently posted an investigative piece on the complexities and potential consequences related to the pressures of work reintegration programs.

Click here to read the article.

The disconnect is significant between the positive intent of the WSIB policy guidelines and the negative results of a poorly communicated return to work strategy.

From a Human Resources perspective, we are often the ones called upon to make that initial contact with the injured worker, as required by the WSIB, within hours of the workplace injury taking place. It is no wonder that the Human Resources practitioner who makes this first contact is often perceived as a cold-hearted, ambulance-chasing bloodhound whose only interest is making sure that the employer’s financial interests are protected.

Yes, there are significant financial penalties imposed on employers when legislative requirements are not followed. There are also significant and long-term consequences when an injured worker is not treated with the respect that they are due, especially when they are vulnerable and in pain.

We, as Human Resources professionals, must learn how to straddle the legislative requirements imposed upon us with some element of dignity and respect for the injured worker. This takes time, patience and practice to strike the right balance between compliance with our legal obligations and compassion for our fellow workers, especially when they need our support the most.

Discussion Questions:

  1. If you were injured at work, how would you react if your employer called to ask you to come back to work as soon as possible?
  2. As a Human Resources practitioner, what is the first thing you will say to an injured worker when you are required to call them after their injury?
  3. The article discusses the negative perceptions of injured workers by other co-workers. What will you do if you see this happening in your workplace?