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Organizations across Canada are ramping up their mental health initiatives to help employees cope with fear and anxiety around the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some of the actions include bringing in mental health experts, empowering staff to openly discuss their worry and stress and ensuring stakeholders that the well-being of workers is being looked after during the public health and economic crisis.

The mental health focus is considered critical during the coronavirus outbreak as most employees are being asked to stay at home and away from others in this era of physical distancing.

“People are isolated. This is the time when they're going to need support more than ever,” says Donna Ferguson, a psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). "We need to watch peoples' mental health right now."

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Dr. Ferguson says organizations "need to be creative" when reaching out to staff they can't see in person. "I think it's more of just asking someone 'how are you doing' ... because we aren't going to be able to guess."

She recommends employers check in with staff individually or, if that’s not possible, offer them mental health resources through an e-mail newsletter or video conferences. The information should be specific to what’s happening in peoples’ lives today, such as the stress of having kids at home all day while they’re working or dealing with a loved one who’s ill. Many organizations are using CAMH resources to help support employees and their families.

KPMG recently sent an e-mail to its staff highlighting the various internal resources available and encouraging them to build mental health resilience.

“How we cope with and experience this challenging time will differ for each of us,” wrote Denis Trottier, KPMG Canada’s chief mental health officer, in the March 19 memo. “I encourage all of you to open up to each other, and not to be afraid to express any challenges or concerns you are feeling. You are not alone.”

TD Bank’s executive vice-president of human resources Kenn Lalonde sent an e-mail to bank staff saying mental health “is critical at any time, but especially at a time like this.

“We’re all going through a difficult period,” Mr. Lalonde wrote in the March 20 memo. “Routines have been disrupted. Work is different. And the demands on our business and personal lives have changed. None of this is easy, and it is affecting all of us in different ways. This is a unique time in history, and it is natural to feel overwhelmed.”

Forestry company Canfor Corp. said in a March 26 news release that it recognizes many of its employees are experiencing stress and anxiety related to the COVID-19 virus and, as a result, is expanding its outreach and communication around mental health support services. Global technology giant Cisco Inc. recently held a video conference call with mental health professionals to answer questions from staff.

While many organizations are working to shed the stigma around mental health, CAMH’s Dr. Ferguson says COVID-19 is an opportunity to make further improvements. She’s encouraged that more companies are putting people in charge of mental health awareness and education, but also believes it should be seen as everyone’s responsibility. “We all own it ... including staff, supervisors and HR,” she says.

At KPMG, Mr. Trottier is seeing the most success in grassroots mental health initiatives taking place at different locations across the organization. Examples include a video series developed by the Vancouver office in which employees share their stories about building connections and being themselves, as well as a mental health network established in Calgary where employees work together to fight mental health stigma and promote well-being through various initiatives and events. KPMG employees also created a happiness podcast series where they share stories about what’s important in their lives and the importance of being positive.

“It’s been amazing ... to see the initiatives rolled out by local mental health peers in times of uncertainty,” Mr. Trottier said in an interview.

Mila Ray-Daniels, chief executive officer of Hamilton-based Head Injury Rehabilitation Ontario (HIRO), which has seven patient-care homes in the province with about 60 residents and 200 employees, says the challenge is supporting both patients and staff feeling stress and anxiety during the pandemic.

HIRO has a social worker on staff but has brought in other mental health resources, including a regional ethicist, to help support its community during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The stress is showing already," Ms. Ray-Daniels says. “The proven mental strategies that we teach to clients, we are also trying to apply them to ourselves."

One of those strategies is ensuring employees be aware of their own mental and physical well-being, so they can effectively look after their patients. “It’s the equivalent of putting your own oxygen mask on first before the person beside you," she says. “This is coming up over and over again because it’s very important.”

People on social media are sharing imaginative ways of entertaining, informing and having fun while staying isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s a compilation of some that made us smile.

The Globe and Mail

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