A renewed focus on employee mental health will be a lasting legacy of the pandemic. Workers of all types have experienced heightened anxieties, ranging from fear of exposure to the virus and feelings of isolation to job uncertainty, financial concerns and increasingly complicated family responsibilities. While workplace stressors have always existed, COVID-19 amplified and accelerated the need to address these issues.
When COVID-19 first struck, Purolator drivers and distribution workers found that their jobs changed overnight, with new safety protocols and an unanticipated “super-peak” volume of packages in the system. Tack on the intense level of anxiety from the fear of infection and the dreadful thought of bringing the virus home to loved ones, and it was a formula for mental-health overload.
Every business is distinct, but most would probably agree that their disability claims related to mental health now exceed those based on traditional physical impairments. It’s more important than ever that employers actively work to support their employees’ well-being.
Those benefits are discernible in lower insurance premiums, better productivity, less disruption and fewer workplace injuries – which overall leads to a more engaged work force.
As businesses begin envisioning their return-to-office scenarios, often in the face of considerable employee reluctance, they should consider these tools that can help champion mental health:
Overcommunication can be an organization’s best recipe for easing stress at work. During a time of crisis or rapid change, transparency, repetition and empathy are the ingredients to instill confidence and a sense of security. Overcommunicate that yes, change is difficult, but that the well-being of employees is the company’s top priority. Overcommunicate that related work stress is legitimate, and provide information on what support is available.
People differ in their readiness to accept change, which is why a single group meeting or a one-time memo just doesn’t cut it. Effective teams are built by regularly reinforcing a clear and consistent message.
Employee assistance programs are key
Employee and family assistance program (EFAP) usage is up considerably from a few years ago. Purolator alone experienced a 20-per-cent increase in each of the last two years. Many benefit providers have also rolled out innovative apps with interactive content – Purolator employees make great use of the LifeWorks app, which offers advice and options to help identify support resources. Such an approach involves a much lower commitment threshold than reaching out to an EFAP, yet it can serve as a very effective gateway to accessing formal support programs.
For businesses, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. By steering an at-risk individual toward an EFAP or other community support programs, a company can help employees better cope with ongoing stresses and avoid disability claims or even a serious workplace injury.
Invest in mental health first-aid training
One of the most valuable employer initiatives to achieve this ounce of prevention is mental health first-aid training. First developed in Australia in 2001, this type of training is now available in 23 countries around the world, with more than 500,000 Canadians trained since 2007. As with society’s progress in overcoming stigma, mental health first aid participation has been a notable achievement in recent years. But there’s still room for improvement – consider that many more workers receive standard first-aid training every year.
Mental health first aid encourages employees to recognize changes in a colleague’s behaviour and to build confidence in initiating that critical “How are you doing?” conversation. Such an expression of concern alone may work wonders, or lead toward a more profound dialogue – and ultimately guidance toward the appropriate support.
It takes a very precise skill set to be comfortable enough to approach a struggling colleague in a non-judgmental way and encourage them to seek support. Empathy may in fact be the softest of soft skills, yet it’s rarely mentioned alongside the usual soft-skill concepts such as teamwork, problem-solving, leadership and flexibility. For sustained, tangible progress when it comes to mental health, both businesses and our educational system alike simply need to be better at recognizing, teaching and valuing empathy.
Canadian employers are all at different stages of their employee mental-health journey, but most appear to be progressing in the right direction – and are increasingly better positioned thanks to more resources and a deeper understanding of the critical issues at stake.
John Ferguson is the president and CEO of Purolator. He is the Leadership Lab columnist for July, 2021.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.
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