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Six-step plan for reopening the economy: Work 2.0 reboot

Temptation exists to focus on operations, but employers can't do that at the expense of mental health


May 4, 2020
By Bill Howatt

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Photo: Marcel Vander Wier/Talent Canada

COVID-19 has created much stress, uncertainty and fear over the past couple of months.

This time of year, when the sun is out and weather warms, it naturally raises Canadians’ energy. It appears this year there will be an extra boost. As return-to-the-workplace conversations are ramping up across the country, it’s clear Canada is on the verge of beginning the process of opening the economy.

Be clear that this is not post-COVID-19. COVID-19 hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s still here, and will be until there are treatments and a vaccine — it’s something we must monitor and manage.

There are lessons we can learn from history, such as the Spanish flu, when the second round was worse than the first. Therefore, we all must be aware and careful, or things could get bad in the fall when the next flu season begins.

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Promoting psychological safety

As employers begin their Work 2.0 reboot, it’s important to look beyond operations to planning that promotes physical and psychological safety, such as:

  • Operations — Protocols will be needed for physical distancing, cleaning, staffing (who works from home, who will be returning to the office or field), supply chain to ensure personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies are in place, tracing and temperature monitoring.
  • Physical health — Many employees have been quite sedentary, so it can be expected that some will need conditioning. For the first six weeks, employees whose roles involve standing, bending, lifting or turning should be encouraged to be mindful to rest, hydrate and stretch to reduce risk for injury. They must build up their workplace fitness levels. Employers will also need to enforce substance use policies to reduce risk for impairment in the workplace.
  • Social — Employers will need to promote civility and the importance of respecting personal boundaries. Humans are like icebergs; you only see the top. There’s often a lot happening below that can be good or bad. Expect that some employees may be edgy, tired or stressed about coming back to the workplace. Don’t assume all employees will want to come back. Reinforce organizational values and encourage all employees to be more tolerant and kinder as a new normal is being formed.
  • Motor skills — Many employees may not have been operating motorized equipment, and that may have resulted in some skill decay. Driving skills and reflexes may be rusty. Encourage all employees to be extra careful on the highways over next few months, as there’s a risk for increased accidents because of poor decisions and reflexes.
  • Mental health — Returning to the workplace will not automatically resolve the stress and strain some employees have experienced. Returning home from a war zone can bring a boost of joy that can be followed by feelings of mental fatigue and delayed onset of trauma. What’s different with COVID-19 is this enemy hasn’t left, and there’s no victory yet. Mental fitness will become increasingly important as the weeks pass.

Avoid this mistake

Don’t ignore mental health — focusing singularly on operations will be a costly mistake.

Just three weeks ago, mental health was a major topic of discussion, especially with concerns around isolation and loneliness. It appeared at that time employers and governments were facilitating an opportunity to get one step closer to eliminating stigma and putting mental health into the mainstream. With the Workforce 2.0 reboot, I’m seeing lots of infographics and job aids focused on operations and not enough on mental health healing and sustainability plans.

Mental health in the workplace cannot be treated as a bunch of programs and policies. Mental health in the workplace is impacted by both employers’ and employees’ behaviours. Every interaction an employee has in the workplace is an opportunity for a positive or negative experience.

The manager-employee relationship is one of the most important factors affecting an employee’s workplace experience that will have a positive or negative impact on their mental health.

Work 2.0 Reboot: Mental health six-step impact game plan

  1. Employee experience strategy — Put in place a strategic plan that integrates human resources and occupational health and safety with the goal of reducing mental harms and promoting mental health. Think outside the edges and consider every interaction as being a source of energy or drain. Get evidence as to what the employer is doing that’s charging employees (e.g., training, feedback, culture) and what’s draining (e.g., work demand, poor communications, lack of autonomy).
  2. Mental fitness benchmark — Get a baseline of your workforce’s mental fitness. Use this to discover employee perceptions around current programs’ impact, psychological health and safety, employees’ resiliency and productivity. Monitor employees’ charge closely, leveraging pulse checks, interviews and focus groups.
  3. Mental fitness plan — Provide an opportunity for all employees to develop a mental fitness plan that promotes physical health, resiliency, coping skills and social connections. Much like physical health, empower employees with the knowledge to make healthy decisions. Prevention requires behavioural change.
  4. Psychologically safe leaders — Employees will benefit from having leaders who have empathy and are aware of what a psychologically safe workplace is and how a leader’s behaviour contributes to creating a psychologically safe workplace.
  5. Peer support — Establishing peer support programs can be helpful, provided they are set up correctly and monitored, and training is put in place. These programs can encourage employees to activate additional mental health support if they need of it.
  6. Mental health supports — Do a full inventory of all your support programs and then build a simple package that shows when and how to use these resources. Do not assume employees are going to read a bunch of URLs. Create a simple CliffsNotes package that’s visual and easy to read. Bucket supports into categories — factors that can prevent mental health concerns and programs that are in place for an employee who needs them.

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. For more information, visit www.howatthr.com.