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How leaders can protect employee wellness during COVID-19

The pandemic has been a catalyst for rethinking workplace practices to better support employees


There has never been a more important time than now in addressing mental health issues, writes Pegi Klein-Webber. (Алина Бузунова/Adobe Stock)

Employers are increasingly worried about the employee well-being issues presented by the escalating pandemic.

The physical health consequences can be devastating but its mental health implications — stress, fear and uncertainty — are equally unnerving.

A leader’s job is to protect staff wellness during times of crisis.

Below are three ways we’ve adjusted our culture, policies and practices at M&M Food Market to better support our teams across the country.

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There has never been a more important time than now in addressing mental health issues, and as leaders — we’re prioritizing this right now, regardless of expense.

Prioritize mental health and well-being

After a year of lockdowns, we’re seeing signs that people are silently struggling with the stress of the pandemic and how it’s impacting their work and personal lives.

In response, we’ve rolled out a round-the-clock hotline for team members to call for help or when they need a listening ear as part of a new employee assistance program (EAP). The program includes an online platform to address four pillars of well-being: physical, mental, social and financial.

Our goal is to ensure every M&M Food Market team member feels supported and empowered to get immediate assistance with the issues impacting them and their families.

Transparency and communication are key

We know that open and frequent communication is critical, especially during a crisis. When leaders communicate with urgency, transparency, and empathy, it helps people adjust to the constantly changing conditions that crises bring.

Research has shown that when employees are surprised by decisions that impact their work, they are three times more likely to be unhappy in their job. To address this, we have been hosting bi-weekly virtual town halls to share regular updates on the state of our business and explain decisions that may affect staff.

During the first few months of the pandemic, we deployed multiple updates per week to our front-line, in-store team members, that included important updates about changes to in-store processes and protocols in response to the evolving COVID-19 crisis.

Using our digital engagement tool called The Menu, we’ve broadcasted video messages from our CEO to hundreds of staff across Canada. We’ve also used it to answer questions while encouraging employee conversations on countless topics.

This kind of openness helps reduce anxiety and fosters a stronger sense of connection, clarity and community.

Putting people first

At the beginning of the pandemic, our priority was to move quickly to ensure all employees were safe.

We closed our head office and focused on ensuring we had proper health and safety measures for our in-store team members, like PPE, enhanced sanitization protocols, and revised store processes and policies to allow us to serve customers while prioritizing employee safety.

We want our team to be healthy, happy, and feel supported so they can go to work and feel good about their contributions. That’s not possible if we don’t each pay attention to our health and safety and look after one another.

People have said they know we’re making decisions with them in mind. We created an environment of trust — we trust that people will do their job and they can trust that we’ll look after them. We’re stronger than we’ve ever been.

While the pandemic has created many challenges, it has also been a catalyst for rethinking workplace practices to better support employees, creating a better workplace long after COVID-19 is behind us.

Pegi Klein-Webber is vice president, people, training and corporate communications at M&M Food Market in Mississauga, Ont.