You are now in the main content area

Supporting Employee Mental Health

As a leader, you play a critical role in ensuring that return to campus planning includes a wellbeing lens that puts people first and supports employees in giving their best at work. With this in mind, supporting employee mental health should be your priority in all return to campus planning. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly altered the daily routines of Canadians and drastically impacted mental health and wellbeing. It has been a period of prolonged  stress, anxiety and fear for many.

As a leader, it’s important to keep in mind:

  • Reopening will be different for everyone and needs will vary based on personal and community circumstances. 
  • Even if reopening is viewed as a positive step, anxiety will not immediately evaporate.
  • The way you approach returning to campus and reopening communications, conversations and planning will influence the degree to which team members will feel safe and confident about the plan. 

Many factors will impact individual mental health and approach to reopening

As vaccination rates increase and the pandemic continues to unfold, communities are looking to build future models for our work and personal lives. As this happens, remember that it is not just COVID-19 that many of us have had to negotiate during this time period. 

Many continue to cope with broader social and personal issues and will do so for months and  years to come. Some in our community have lost loved ones while others have been without family or friends. Life has not stopped.  

As a result, many employees may be contemplating returning to campus and the reopening of our community from a very different perspective than when the pandemic began. Many are contemplating returning to campus with trepidation and uncertainty, both of which may have a significant impact on our daily functioning and interactions with others.

3 steps to prioritize employee wellbeing when communicating about return to campus

As you prepare for the conversation, ensure you have familiarized yourself with Ryerson’s Planning for a Gradual Return to Campus and Health and Safety on Campus information to help answer questions that may arise.

Although it is impossible to anticipate every concern, many of us are considering similar issues, such as: 

  • Getting to and from work: Some may be concerned about the prospect of taking public transportation to/from work.  
  • Addressing concerns with colleagues: Some may be wondering what to say to a student or colleague who we feel may be disregarding public safety guidelines such as physical distancing or mask wearing. 
  • Returning to the downtown core: Some may feel anxious about close contact with people or unaccustomed to the stimulation that is inevitable based on the location of our downtown campus.

At the same time, many will be excited to be back in the workplace, energized by being on campus and working and seeing others. 

From the moment that we leave our homes, to the time we return, we will be navigating new terrain, work routines and interactions.

As a leader you can help ease the return to campus with a careful, intentional and phased approach. This can help:

  • avoid unnecessary tension, interpersonal conflict and misunderstandings 
  • create a sense of psychological safety and predictability that will benefit all.

Involve individuals and teams in as much pre-planning as possible including setting up expectations, clear norms and working guides. Begin every conversation with an employee by clearly stating:

  • what your intention is in having the conversation;
  • what, if any assumptions or decisions are in place; 
  • any parameters you are working within;
  • where there is flexibility or room for input; and, 
  • your commitment to create a plan that acknowledges that it will take time to find the path forward on a long-term basis.

Commit to adapting return to campus plans as new information and guidance becomes available.  

How are you feeling about returning to campus?

If an employee reports concern about returning to campus, it is vital to understand more about these concerns in order to address their needs. Follow up questions could include:

  • Can you help me to understand what is causing this fear?
  • What do you think would help you on your return?

What have you learned during the remote work period that you would like to take with you when we return to campus?

Employees might have enjoyed exercising during lunch time or starting the day earlier. Provide space for employees to bring in moments of enjoyment to their work as they make the transition. Consider incorporating suggestions to improve the workday into your unit’s new routines.

Once returned: How are you finding your return to campus?

It will be important for leaders to continue conversations throughout the transition period and monitor the impact of return to campus on employee wellbeing and productivity. If employees report concerns, ask about what the challenges they are facing and what they think may help them to address the challenge. 

If possible, it’s important to provide employees with opportunities to continue to contribute to the revision of return to campus plans even when you have returned to campus.

How to prioritize employee wellbeing when planning the first day

Wherever possible, implement a gradual, phased approach: For example, structure the arrival and work hours of team members so that their arrival/departure is staggered for the first few days and possibly weeks. For more guidance on scheduling, visit the Who Returns to Campus information on the COVID-19 website.

Prioritize social time: Set aside time for a social activity, to welcome people back and catch up with each other and outline the safety expectations and protocols. Include check-ins each day for the first week or two.

Acknowledge both the excitement and anxiety: Name the anxiety that people may be feeling as well as the excitement. Remind your team to be patient with each other as you all learn a ‘new dance’ in the office.

Invite suggestions: Welcome suggestions from the team to enhance people’s experience in the workplace.

Timely information sharing: Share information about university procedures and guidelines with regard to safety and wellbeing. Share any updates with team members in a timely way.

Individual check-ins: Engage in conversation with team members individually specifically about returning to campus.

Anticipate an adjustment period: Keep in mind that the transition period will be different for everyone and develop individual return to work plans accordingly.

How to continue to prioritize wellbeing during the fall transition period

  • Transparent leadership: Be as transparent as possible and address concerns that arise early. Provide employees with as much clarity about the future as possible, while acknowledging that this is a period of ambiguity, transition and change.
  • Provide validation, lead with empathy: Validate the challenges everyone is experiencing, enter each conversation with empathy and compassion.
  • Anticipate an adjustment period: Keep in mind that the longer employees have been working remotely and the more isolated they have been, the more time they will need to return gradually in a phased way.
  • Health and safety planning: Share details about health and safety protocols that will be in place. Clarify that as reopening continues, health and safety protocols will change and you will keep them in the loop.
  • Be open and flexible: Leaders are encouraged to continue to prioritize flexibility and think creatively when possible. Think in terms of both/and instead of either/or.
  • Seek support when you need it: As a leader you won't always have the answers and that’s okay. It’s important to rely on your direct leader and your HR partner to help guide you through the process.

Familiarize yourself with the signs of distress

As outlined here, there are a number of factors that may create challenges for employees as they adapt to returning to campus. As a result, either due to pre-existing conditions or for other reasons, some employees may display signs that they are in distress. 

With this in mind, it’s important for leaders to be familiar with the signs of distress, which include: 

  • Anger or sadness
  • Expression of pessimism or hopelessness
  • Difficulty concentrating or retaining information
  • Lack of engagement or interest
  • Irritability
  • Increased lateness or absences

If you notice any of these, you are encouraged to reach out to Workplace Wellbeing Services.

Resources for leaders and employees

External counselling resources 

  • EFAP - The Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP) is a confidential and voluntary support service that can help with many kinds of problems and challenges for all  employees (who are eligible for benefits).
  • Psychological Counselling, external link - Employees with benefits have access to coverage for psychological counselling services.

Urgent resources