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Safeguarding employee health and wellness during the pandemic

Health, safety and wellbeing concerns relating to COVID-19



Continuing on from last week’s post, which was more about personal wellness, employers can do their part to help maintain employee wellness during the pandemic. This includes not only concerns relating to physical health, safety and wellbeing, but also issues surrounding mental health.

Employers have a general duty to maintain a safe work environment, both under the common law and the governing occupational health and safety legislation. Under the internal responsibility system (IRS), the workplace parties themselves (employees, employers and unions where applicable) have the primary responsibility for maintaining health and safety in the workplace.

This principle of Canadian law recognizes that occupational health and safety are literally everyone’s business.

Nevertheless, employers probably have the biggest role to play in safeguarding employee health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace. It is important to remember that the workplace can extend beyond the employer’s physical premises.

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This is particularly important to remember in relation to employees working from home. While it is likely impossible or at least impractical to inspect every employee’s home-based workspace, some attempt should be made to ensure employees are working safely at home. This includes ergonomic concerns, avoiding burnout and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

These types of considerations can be dealt with through education, policies, guidance and training.

Employers can send employees checklists, guidelines and best practices, and it is also a good time to consider updating, enhancing and communicating telework policies.

Naturally, some sort of personal protective equipment (PPE) and/or engineering controls are required for those who are still required to come into the workplace by virtue of the nature of their work and the fact they are working in an essential industry. Depending on the nature of the business, these could include things like masks, gloves, face shields, physical distancing measures, enhanced cleaning and sanitation and physical barriers (such as plexiglass windows for cashiers).

From a performance management perspective, employers cannot expect business as usual. The truth is that people’s productivity will suffer as a result of the pandemic. Therefore, it is a good idea to be flexible and reasonable with employees and understand it isn’t business as usual.

The role of managers

Managers in particular have an important role to play. This applies not only with respect to those who are forced to work from home due to the shutdown, but also in relation to those in essential industries who are still required to come into work and are at risk of contracting the disease as a result of their work with the public.

With respect to those employees who are working from home, managers need to focus more on managing for results and less on day-to-day supervision of their direct reports. Flexibility is important too because people might need to take a break for their physical and mental health and wellbeing, and many employees have enhanced childcare obligations as a result of school closures.

Again, it is important to recognize that productivity will take a hit during this crisis.

Some things managers can do when managing a remote team include having regular check-in meetings via videoconferencing (and encouraging team members to turn on their video cameras), scheduling time simply for social chit-chat and possibly even scheduling virtual social events on a voluntary basis, such as “Thirsty Thursdays,” where employees are encouraged to get together via videoconferencing with a beverage of their choice. This helps to combat feelings of isolation and is designed to maintain a sense of camaraderie and teamwork.

Employers can also provide health and wellness tips to their employees to help them manage through the crisis. This can include suggestions for maintaining physical fitness, healthy eating and adequate rest, relaxation and time away from work.

It is also a good idea to remind employees about your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and the types of support your EAP provider has on offer. The EAP provider may even have some helpful content you can share with your employees.

The duty to accommodate

It is also important to remember the duty to accommodate in relation to employees with disabilities and with respect to family status. You may need to provide accommodation to vulnerable individuals with underlying health conditions in the form of special equipment, schedule and shift changes, working from home or furloughs from work. This also applies to those with childcare needs, especially given that most schools are closed at the moment.

Brian Kreissl is a product development manager with Thomson Reuters in Toronto. He looks after HR, payroll, OH&S, records retention and Triform. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com or (416) 609-5886. For more information, visit https://store.thomsonreuters.ca/en-ca/home.