Thursday, March 30, 2023

As Employees Return to Work, Employers Must Pay Attention to Their Mental Health

As Employees Return to Work, Employers Must Pay Attention to Their Mental Health

As hundreds of thousands of workers head back to the office in person, the Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW) is encouraging workplace leaders to start real, authentic conversations with their colleagues in order to promote a culture of workplace wellness.

That is one of six key pieces of advice to safeguard mental health in the workplace. Always a key concern, OASW says mental health should be top of mind as hundreds of thousands of office workers return to work this spring and summer.

OASW’s advice on workplace wellness coincides with Mental Health Week, which runs from May 2 to 8, 2022.

“There is a significant, ongoing mental health and addictions crisis in Canada,” says OASW Chief Executive Officer Dr. Deepy Sur. “And it’s important to know that the challenges people are facing have not been resolved just because we’re entering a new phase of the pandemic. As people return to the office, we’re going to need to be mindful of this context and adopt new practices for the long-term.”

Social workers are the largest group of mental health providers in Ontario. They are one of six regulated professions legally authorized to practice psychotherapy and use the title Psychotherapist.

OASW’s top tips to promote wellness in the workplace include:Provide mental health awareness training

We spend a lot of time at work. With access to mental health care in short supply, social networks, including connections with colleagues, can help fill some of the gaps. 

“The pandemic has blurred lines between personal and professional relationships and for many this was unexpected,” says Sur. “Colleagues have been inside my house through video chats. They’ve gotten to know my dogs! On the upside, it has created new openings for people to start safe conversations about their well-being.”

Courses like Mental Health First Aid teach participants to learn to recognize signs of declining well-being. Participants also learn safe ways to approach people and initiate conversations, as well as how to be supportive by listening non-judgmentally.Lead with empathy

More than two-thirds, or 68 percent, of CEOs, fear being less respected if they show empathy, according to a 2021 study titled State of Workplace Empathy. At the same time, a recent OASW poll conducted by Leger found that nearly 9 out of 10, or 89 percent, of Ontarians, want to see their leaders responding to them with empathy.

“The key attribute of post-pandemic leadership is empathy,” says Sur. “And given that remote work has blurred the personal and professional in ways we haven’t seen before, we encourage leaders to work hard to understand what their employees may be dealing with, and help combat the stigma by showing vulnerability themselves.”Extend more trust

The pandemic has profoundly impacted the way office workers do their jobs. “People have shifted work and built-in ways to boost happiness in their day,” says Sur. “That means different things to different people. It can be as mundane as folding laundry while on a conference call, or as big as having taken on a caregiver role with an aging parent.”

As workers return to the office, workplace leaders will have to elevate trust. Sur recommends allowing deviations from an organization’s return-to-work plan, for example.

“It now becomes the employer’s role to figure out how to accommodate those changes,” said Sur. “And that begins with conversations. Find out what their day at home looked like, what values are important to them and try to adjust for that. Many have prioritized their loved ones in remarkable new ways. A return to work doesn’t change the importance of this.”Increase mental health coverage in workplace benefit plans

The average value of workplace benefits for those fortunate enough to have them is $750 per year, an amount that is used up in just a handful of visits with a therapist.

OASW is calling on employers to introduce stand-alone mental health coverage in their group plans worth a minimum of $1,500 per employee.

“Historically, there’s never been a bigger need for these benefits,” says Sur. “We would like to see Canadian business leaders step up by doubling mental health benefits to a minimum of $1,500. If you don’t have them, introduce them. And do it now. Your organization and its most important asset – its people – will benefit.”Create an even more inclusive workplace

Recent studies show that racialized employees are less likely to want to return to the office. Experts believe this is because remote work can protect against microaggressions and discrimination.

“We have to realize that racialized people and other marginalized groups are experiencing the pandemic – and its associated mental health impacts – differently than others,” says Sur. “At the same time, the data tells us that about one-third of employees believe flexibility is the most important action their employer has taken to support mental health.”

Workplace leaders should consider creating flexibility within their return-to-work plans to accommodate individual work styles and circumstances. This is also a good time to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to meet the unique needs of racialized employees.Double down on communication

Without clear communication, employees are three times more likely to report burnout. As workers return to the office, business leaders and their employees will need to communicate consistently to build trust.

“At OASW, we talk about creating a ‘culture of conversation’,” says Sur. “Those conversations should be happening at every level, in multiple directions, and across all channels.”

As workers return to the office, workplace leaders should initiate informal and formal conversations by doing things like asking how people are doing, making time in team meetings for authentic check-ins, holding more team-building events, and ensuring their teams have important information about mental health supports in the workplace.About OASW

The Ontario Association of Social Workers (OASW) is the voice of social work in Ontario. It is a voluntary, provincial, non-profit association representing over 8,000 members. All members have a university degree in social work at the bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral level. OASW works to actively speak on behalf of social workers on issues of interest to the profession and advocates for the improvement of social policies and programs directly affecting social work practice and client groups served.