Mental health has been pushed into the spotlight in recent years, and rightly so. Before the pandemic conversations around mental health were becoming more and more common, as we started to shed stigmas and prejudices around the topic. But the pandemic and its effects on us all have propelled the topic into the forefront.

During the course of the pandemic we struggled to adapt to a ‘new normal’. This had a considerable impact on all of us to different degrees. One of the many lasting effects of the pandemic will be its influence on our mental health and how this shows up in our everyday lives. Work was one of these major areas that was affected. While many faced lay-offs and uncertain work situations, others faced adapting to working from home, or working from home while caring for small children. It has left lasting marks on us all, and employers are taking note. In this blog, we’ll cover mental health in the workplace, how the pandemic impacted mental health, and how employers can support their employees going forward.

The New Normal

The uncertainty that the pandemic caused took a toll on all of us. Many mental health issues related to the pandemic and work are obvious, like the loss of work, lay-offs, businesses closing and school closures. Some however, are more subtle, like the transition to working from home and the isolation that many faced, the anxiety surrounding the uncertainty of the situation, the lack of work and life boundaries with your office suddenly in your living room, and the very real struggle of managing child care among all of this, which often fell to women to tackle.

When you’re in the middle of a storm, the focus is usually on just getting through and making it out. Many workers entered ‘survival mode’ and adapted as best they could. But the stress, isolation, anxiety, and uncertainty of the pandemic has left lasting impacts that many are now dealing with. And while life has gone back to normal in many ways, these changes are also presenting challenges to mental wellness for employees: facing going back to the office or managing a hybrid work situation. It means that mental health, which decades ago no one talked about, now needs to be a central topic at work.

Mental Health in the Workplace

With a number of different working arrangements nowadays (full time in the office, hybrid, full time remote, etc.), we’re not necessarily getting the same in-person experiences as we’re used to. But the effects of mental health on our work and productivity can be noticeable regardless. The isolation of working from home can be a struggle for people, while for others the prospect of returning to the office may have been a major mental hurdle. And others are experiencing burnout for going too hard for too long without support.

Despite the range of scenarios employees face, employers are taking note of the mental wellbeing of their employees. And thankfully so, as employees are starting to expect more support in this area. Sick days might  look different these days, while open and frank conversations around mental health and workload are more common. Flexibility is a key here too and many companies have adopted flexible work arrangements to provide choice to their employees.

Over the past few years, many job seekers opted for new workplaces that valued employee mental well-being.  In order for companies to keep employees, they need to place mental health high on their own priority list; the American Psychological Association found that “seven in ten workers (71%) believe their employer is more concerned about the mental health of employees now than in the past”. So, it’s more important than ever that employers support mental health in the workplace, but what does this look like?

How to Improve Mental Health in the Workplace

The future of work encompasses a focus on mental health and the wellbeing of employees.

Support from their employer during a time of crisis could mean a world of difference for an employee that needs help. Here are some tips and strategies on how to support mental health in the workplace from the 2022 Benefits Canada HealthCare Survey:

For business leaders: 

  • Flexible work options provide space for your employees to navigate through their busy schedules.
  • Open dialogue about mental health is key to getting past the stigma that people may hold about it. Discuss this with your employees and have managers include it in their team discussions.
  • Consider a health benefits plan that addresses not only physical wellness but also mental wellness. This can support overall employee satisfaction too: a Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey found that plan members were “much more likely to describe the quality of the health benefits plan as excellent or good when workplace mental health supports are available” (Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey 2022, pg. 17). Programs that provide wellness options can also boost employee morale.
  • Some companies have found success with wellness committees at different levels within the organization, and training programs that provide ways to support employees to recognize and respond to signs of mental health decline (Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey 2022, pg. 17).
  • Foster a culture of compassion and understanding. Mental illness is not a weakness, but an opportunity for support and care. 
  • The BCHS survey also found that “31% of surveyed plan members identified themselves as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC)”. BIPOC individuals can face discrimination in the workplace, negatively impacting their mental health and stress. Find ways to combat discrimination in your workplace by fostering a culture of diversity, inclusion and equality and developing strategies to support your employees (Benefits Canada Healthcare Survey 2022, pg 21).

For employees:

  • Find a workplace that supports your mental wellbeing as a priority. If you feel comfortable, be open with your colleagues and/or manager about how you’re doing, especially if you feel like your mental wellbeing is impacting your work.
  • Take advantage of your health care benefits plan at work. Many plans offer coverage for not only physical fitness but also health care professionals like psychologists and therapists.
  • If available to you, participate in programs your employer may offer to support mental health.
  • Help your coworkers. Someone may come to you for help because they need the support. Answer the call if you have the capacity and help make that team member feel supported. That person will likely return the favour one day if need be.
  • Create habits for yourself that allow you to check in on yourself and your mental wellbeing throughout the day. Maybe it’s a break for a walk in the sunshine at lunch or a game with some coworkers in the breakroom. Build healthy habits into your workday to help your body and your brain.

If you’re an employer that wants to ramp up mental health support for your employees, our GMS Group Advantage plan is a great option. It now includes a Clinical Counselling benefit, which covers psychology, clinical counselling, social work and psychotherapy. Counselling services are also available through the Employee Family Assistance Program (EFAP), which can be added to any Group Advantage plan.

The new normal is different from the normal that we’re used to, and this is especially true in the workplace. That’s why it’s more important than ever that we discuss mental health in the workplace, provide support and understanding for those who need it, and reach out if you need help.