Workplace mental health issues a challenge as pandemic hangs on: Stewart McKelvey managing partner

Rebecca Saturley among speakers at Canadian Lawyer’s Feb. 24 Mental Health in the Workplace webinar

Workplace mental health issues a challenge as pandemic hangs on: Stewart McKelvey managing partner
Rebecca Saturley is a featured speaker at the Mental Health in the Workplace webinar on Feb. 24.

Employers are increasingly challenged to deal with employees’ mental stress in the workplace — a situation made even more difficult as the COVID-19 pandemic has meant the “workplace” is now at home, says Rebecca Saturley, the Halifax Managing Partner at Stewart McKelvey.

“Mental stress is one of the biggest struggles employers have to deal with,” says Saturley. “It was a growing problem before COVID-19, and it has only been compounded by the events of this year.”

What compounds the workplace stress issues these days, she says, is that since so many employees are now working at home, there no obvious way of “checking in” on them to see that they are doing okay. They may also be forced to handle the potentially added stress of working at home with responsibilities like small children.

Saturley says: “It’s trite to say, but most people spend most of their waking hours at work, so if you do have any mental health issues, they are bound to manifest themselves at work, and they can become an issue for your employer and your colleagues if they are readily apparent in the office. But if work is at home, how does an employer know an employee is underwater emotionally?”

Saturley is one of the featured speakers at Canadian Lawyer’s Mental Health in the Workplace webinar on Feb. 24.

She says that employers have a legal obligation to accommodate an employee with mental health issues, up to the point of “undue hardship.”

But that isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it sounds. “What is mental illness? What is someone just having a bad day at home or work? It can get really complicated for employers, who are faced with trying to decide when to interfere in someone’s personal life.”

Saturley adds that, for employers and other employees, “it can be uncomfortable approaching an employee who, say, is crying at their desk. They wonder if they should go over and say something or leave that person alone.”

However, Saturley says it’s essential for employers to address these issues head-on “if they want a healthy, happy and well-functioning workforce.

“It doesn’t mean you are an armchair psychiatrist, or that you delve too much into people’s personal lives, but you should really be trying to help your employees with resources that can help them relieve some of that stress.”

Saturley says that employers need to be both “reactive” and “proactive” in dealing with employee stress and mental health issues. The reactive approach might be to have an employee assistance program, offering counselling and other services. However, these can be pricey for smaller employers, “but even if you don’t have one of those, it’s a good idea to have a list of mental health resources that are available.”

The proactive approach is helping employees “become resilient” in the face of stress. That sort of mental health training is important, Saturley says. “Things go wrong for people, not every day, not every week, but when it happens, your employees should have some tools for dealing with the stress it causes.”

Another proactive tool is to make available programs such as yoga, or the “virtual” cocktail party, for those who want to participate.

“The one good thing to come out of COVID is that these sorts of things don’t have to be in-person events,” she says. “They can be made available online, so there is more ability to access these sorts of tools, whether it is something as simple as ‘games night’ or more specific mental health training courses.”

On the less formal side, Saturley says employers need to have a good strategy for communicating with employees, whether that is when they are in the office or when they are working virtually. “And you as an employer have to let it be known that you are open minded, willing to listen, and happy to help them through whatever problems they may have.”

Saturley says employers should stress to their employees that they should find a way to define their work life from their home life, especially these days when working from home is so common. “If you see someone sending emails at all hours, for example, make sure you check in to see that they do have that proper home-work divide and aren’t stressing themselves out with work from home.”

Employers will have to be attuned to working from home on “both sides of the fence,” she says.

“There will be some employees who will work too much from home. Others will work too little because they are not used to working in an unstructured environment and they may have other pressing demands like looking after children who are going to school virtually.

“So, these days, what employers have to realize is the need to be more flexible, especially as we work through this pandemic.”

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