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When the coronavirus crisis escalated last week with businesses closing and warnings for Canadians to stay at home, Denis Trottier sprang into action.

As chief mental health officer of KPMG’s Canadian operation, he knew this pandemic would lead to physical and emotional distress. Not only did he set up virtual mental-health support events for staff across the country (registration is very high), but he also reached out to them to offer other resources and some much-needed reassurance.

“How we cope with and experience this challenging time will differ for each of us,” Mr. Trottier wrote in an e-mail to about 8,000 Canadian staff. “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.”

If only more companies were this pro-active about supporting the mental health of their employees. As Canadians try to cope with increasing uncertainty, there’s an urgent need for organizations to step up and help their staff during this crisis and beyond. Although the business community has made strides on mental-health awareness in recent years, there’s much more work to be done.

It’s still early days in the pandemic, and companies are already experiencing increased demand for mental-health supports. BCE Inc., a corporate leader in mental-health awareness with its Bell Let’s Talk campaign, is seeing “significant increased usage” of its employee and family assistance program, and is responding by increasing resources for staff. The telecommunications company is providing a 24/7 virtual health-care service that employees can use for secure online medical consultations, and adding to its library of mental-health videos and podcasts with a new COVID-19 hub that provides tips on managing anxiety, social distancing and working remotely.

“It’s a time of heightened stress and uncertainty in general, but we also need to ensure our employees have the support they need as Bell keeps networks and service running through the crisis,” says Mary Deacon, chair of Bell Let’s Talk. “The needs of our team are going to evolve as the situation continues to change, and we will be there listening and adapting and ensuring our team has the best supports possible.”

How can I manage my mental health during the pandemic?

Being worried, even scared, in these circumstances is totally understandable. Looking out for your mental, as well as physical, health is important, but the physical distancing required to protect others from the coronavirus can create a “cocoon” of isolation that makes self-care difficult.

What can you do? We asked experts for advice:

  • Keep a routine: Give yourself structure. Eat healthy, stay active and get plenty of sleep.
  • Keep things in perspective: Remind yourself that most people experience mild illness and this will come to an end. Avoid going down internet rabbit holes.
  • When and where to seek help: Feeling very irritable, snapping at others and having a hard time sleeping are signs you are not able to cope on your own. CAMH and the Canadian Psychological Association have resources to recognize that behaviour and adapt. The Globe also has a guide to what services are available and how to protect your mental health.

How should both employers and employees manage the psychological impact of self-quarantine? One fully remote company shares lessons on staying mentally fit:

  • Communication: Remote teams can’t rely on body language. Any way you can help your staff feel involved and connected organically is a win.
  • Check-ins: There’s enormous value in discussing morale, mental health and social wellness.
  • Social distance – not isolation: Start traditions. Remote teams need things to look forward to and opportunities to connect in stress-free ways.

You can also read The Globe and Mail’s digest of the latest news about COVID-19′s spread around the world and sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter.

Insurer Manulife Financial Corp., which provides mental-health benefits of $10,000 a year per employee and their dependents (yes, you read that correctly), is also boosting supports for its staff. In addition to providing remote wellness sessions such as dial-in guided meditation and chair yoga on Skype, its resident mental-health specialist, Dr. Georgia Pomaki, is providing advice to employees.

Other businesses, however, are having trouble meeting the increased demand. “We’re hearing from employers all across Canada that they’re struggling to respond in many different ways," says Jordan Friesen, national director of workplace mental health with the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

The CMHA, which provides community mental-health programs and services across the country, is offering tips for how businesses can respond to employee anxiety about COVID-19 through improved communications and pro-actively directing employees to psychological support services.

It’s understandable that businesses are worried about controlling costs at a time when revenues are falling, but mental-health supports aren’t wasted investments. Deloitte Canada published research last November that found companies with mental-health programs in place for one year had a median annual return on investment (ROI) of $1.62 for every dollar invested.

There are also free resources. For instance, the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, the first of its kind in the world, is a management system available free of cost to companies of all sizes. It offers guidance on critical event preparedness and managing change.

Compliance with the standard is voluntary, but perhaps it should be mandatory given that companies have a legal obligation to provide psychological protection to their employees.

Businesses should also be considering what preventive measures and monitoring to put in place as they prepare for the eventual return to the office of employees working from home, says Liz Horvath, manager of workplace mental health at the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

The commission, which is focused on mental-health policy and research, is offering information on its website about mental-health first aid during the COVID-19 pandemic and the Working Mind COVID-19 Self-Care & Resilience Guide.

“It isn’t business as usual,” says the commission’s president and chief executive, Louise Bradley. "I have listened to some very difficult and very horrific situations that people are facing. … It’s important that we really and truly listen to people and have compassion. Because if not, it’s going to be worse.”

The spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues, with more cases diagnosed in Canada. The Globe offers the dos and don'ts to help slow or stop the spread of the virus in your community.

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