Mental Health and Returning to Work During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Written by Munis Topcuoglu, Editor at EHN Canada.

Returning to work during a pandemic can involve high levels of stress and potential adverse mental health consequences. However, both employees and employers can take actions to mitigate the difficulties of returning to the workplace during COVID-19. Furthermore, everyone can take steps to maintain their good mental health during these challenging times.

Negative Effects on Mental Health

Both employees and employers need to recognize the negative mental health effects of COVID-19 and returning to the workplace during a pandemic.

Harmful effects of self-isolation and pandemics

Prolonged self-isolation is generally associated with an increase in mental health issues. Primary concerns may be fear of infection and greater worries regarding an uncertain future, especially related to one’s finances. Specific fears caused by a pandemic include fears of sickness or dying, of infecting others, and of stigma. Feeling helpless and unable to access normally available resources and services also makes people less resilient. Other important factors include lack of routine, decreased social interaction, and reduced attention to self-care. All of the above can contribute to increased psychological distress.

Research has shown that rates of depression rise during pandemics. Other mental health concerns that increase include the following:

  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Excessive worrying
  • Insomnia
  • Burnout
  • Traumatic stress

The following risk factors make individuals more susceptible to increasing mental health concerns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Self-perception of poor health or history of chronic illness
  • Not feeling adequately informed regarding COVID-19
  • Low confidence in diagnostic accuracy of COVID-19 tests
  • Belief in the high likelihood that a family member will get infected
  • Belief that the survival rate of infection is low
  • Belief that they themselves are in serious danger
  • Changes to work, or loss of work and income

Stressors related to returning to work

In addition to the general psychological impacts of self-isolation and living during a pandemic, returning to the workplace has its own set of stressors. Returning to the workplace after several months of absence can be unsettling, especially when accompanied by significant changes such as new protocols and schedules, the possibility of increased workloads, and the tangible absence of coworkers who may have lost their jobs. In addition to fearing exposure and infection while in the workplace, individuals who feel especially vulnerable to COVID-19 will also experience additional stress from riding public transit and being in public spaces as they commute to and from work. Finally, discrimination due do the stigma related to being infected, or possibly infected, with COVID-19 can be another source of anxiety.

How Employees Can Address Fears Related to Their Workplace

Employees can take actions to feel safer about returning to work. These include asking their employer questions about workplace safety and requesting that their employer takes all appropriate measures to protect employees from COVID-19.

Ask your employer questions about COVID-19 Safety

If employees have concerns regarding the safety of their workplace, they should ask their employer questions. If you’re worried, you should ask your employer how they’re satisfying common requirements for businesses across Canada, including the following:

  • Measures to ensure adequate physical distancing between employees
  • Workspace physical design elements such as plexiglass to shield employees from customers
  • Safety protocols such as for hand hygiene, disinfecting surfaces, and ensuring sick employees stay home
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) provided for employees, as necessary
  • Training for employees related to COVID-19 safety

Your right to engage in work refusal

Employees must return to work when requested by their employer. Not returning to work may be interpreted as a resignation by your employer and you could lose your job. An exception to this is when an employee has a specific concern regarding the safety of their workplace. When you have reasonable cause to believe that your workplace is dangerous, you have the right to refuse to work under the Canada Labour Code. You must notify your employer of your refusal and the safety reasons for your refusal. If your employer can’t or won’t fix the problem to your satisfaction, then an investigation by the Ministry of Labour is required. If the Ministry of Labour decides that your concern is valid, then your employer must fix the problem. Alternatively, if the Ministry of Labour decides that your employer has satisfied all safety requirements, then you must return to work.

How Can Employers Help Employees Feel Better About Returning to Work?

Employers can do a number of things to make workplaces safer for employees and help ease employees’ worries and anxieties.

Reduce employee density

Employers can arrange schedules to have some employees working from home some of the time. Staggering the days that employees work on site reduces the number of employees in the workplace at any one time and makes it easier to comply with physical distancing requirements.

Allow partial remote work

In addition to reducing employee density, allowing employees to work remotely on some days will be a less dramatic change for employees compared to returning to the workplace full time. It will also allow for a less jarring change, in the event that a “second wave” requires employees to go back to full-time remote work.

Redesign physical elements

Many employers will need to rethink the physical design of their workplaces. One part of this is ensuring that the layout of workstations allows compliance with physical distancing requirements. Other elements include signage related to COVID-19 safety, as well as installing physical design elements and equipment (e.g. plexiglass shields and hand-hygiene stations).

Rebuild employee morale

Many employees may feel demoralized due to the psychological impacts of being away from the workplace and in isolation for several months. If some of their coworkers permanently lost their jobs, this can make things even worse. Keeping in mind that motivated employees are critical for the success of any business, employers must do their best to create supportive environments for their employees. This starts by listening and acknowledging employees’ concerns, and demonstrating sensitivity—especially when making announcements regarding workplace changes. When practical, fun team-building events can help lift the mood and make employees feel appreciated.

Good communication

Employers should ensure open lines of communication with employees, and between employees and their supervisors. Employee surveys are a good way to get feedback from employees. Supervisors should conduct regular one-on-one check-ins with each employee to see how they’re feeling. If employees are still working partially remotely, good communication will require that all employees have video-conferencing technology accessible both remotely and on site. These practices will help employees feel supported and that their employer cares about them.

Good information

Employers should also be a source of reliable information for their employees. Providing timely and accurate information about both COVID-19 and the employer’s action plan can help employees feel better informed, and in turn more in control and empowered. Providing accurate information also involves educating employees to dispel myths, rumours, and stereotypes regarding COVID-19. Employers should also explain why it’s important to avoid using stigmatizing language such as “victim,” “carriers,” and “infected” (when in reference to a particular person) when talking about COVID-19.

Make employees feel heard, protected, prepared, and supported

Employers should do everything they can to create a psychologically safe workplace environment. Listening to employees, supporting their needs, and clearly communicating actions that are being taken to protect them is critical for employees to feel safe and that their employer cares about their wellbeing. Such an environment will encourage self-compassion and self-care among employees, helping increase their resilience, and reducing the psychological impacts of returning to work during COVID-19.

Mental Health Tips for Building Resilience

People can build their resilience and maintain good mental health through a combination of self-care and proactively addressing issues and risks.

Practice self-care

Self-care practices include healthy eating, exercise, walking outside to get fresh air and sunlight, and ensuring you take some guilt-free “me time” every day. However, one of the most important self-care practices for building resilience is making sure you get enough good-quality sleep. Sleep affects your mental health, metabolic health, cardiovascular health, and immune system. Aim for eight hours of sleep every night and do the following to achieve good sleep quality:

  • Go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Avoid caffeine for eight hours before your bedtime.
  • Avoid blue light from screens for one hour before your bedtime. If you must use screens, make the screen colour warmer—most mobile devices and computer operating systems now have this feature built in. Alternatively, you can use software or apps, such as f.lux. If you’re exposed to blue light from full-spectrum light bulbs, or cool fluorescent or LED lighting, you may want to get yourself a pair of amber glasses.
  • Ensure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and not too warm.
  • Before you go to bed, listen to music, read, or practice mindfulness. Switch your phone to silent and put it in another room.

Address problems created by isolation and pandemic fears

As discussed earlier in this article, isolation and pandemic fears can cause a range of mental health issues or make them worse. You can take a number of preventative measures to reduce these adverse effects, as follows:

  • Establish a daily routine: creating a balanced and consistent structure for each day can help you feel in control and reduce your feelings of uncertainty.
  • Set small goals for yourself and achieve them: this can increase your feelings of control and competence, which will help keep you motivated.
  • Find healthy distractions: having enjoyable activities in which to engage while you’re not working can help take your mind off your worries.
  • Maintain social connections: staying in touch with friends and family can make you feel more supported and less alone.
  • Avoid dysfunctional coping strategies: do not increase your consumption of unhealthy foods, alcohol, or drugs to help regulate your emotions and mood.

Manage your media consumption

Misinformation regarding COVID-19 is abundant on the internet and can be hazardous for your mental health. Ensure that you get your information from trusted organizations such as Health Canada, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or the World Health Organization (WHO). Reputable academic institutions can also be sources of reliable information (e.g. Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus dashboard). Avoid getting information from unreliable news sources and social media. Limit the frequency and duration of your information seeking and exposure to COVID-19 news. Once a day for half an hour is sufficient for you to stay up to date with the latest news. Placing a hard limit and sticking to it will help reduce excessive worrying and obsessing.

Prevent Burnout by Recognizing Early Warning Signs

Burnout is caused by working under high stress for extended periods of time and it results in impaired job performance. Hence, as you return to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s especially important for you to be on the lookout for early warning signs of burnout, such as the following:

  • Increased frequency of headaches and other pain in the body
  • Increased feelings of self-doubt, failure, helplessness, or defeat
  • Increased negative or cynical thoughts regarding your job
  • Increased use of food, alcohol, or drugs
  • Decreased motivation
  • Chronic feelings of exhaustion and fatigue
  • Failure to fulfill important responsibilities

If you recognize any of the above warning signs in yourself, you should reach out to your employer for support, and make sure you take some time to rest, relax, and recharge.

Employees Returning to Work Need Support to Succeed

If you’re an employee and you’re struggling, reach out immediately, both to your employer and your personal network, to get the support you need. If you’re an employer and you notice an employee who’s struggling, it’s critical for you to understand their needs and provide them support as quickly as possible.

Call Us If You Need Professional Help

Whether you’re an individual who needs help with your mental health or substance use disorder, or you’re an employer who has employees who need help—we’re here for you. Call us 24/7 at one of the numbers below to start a conversation about how we can help you.

Online Treatment and Support

If you’d like to learn more about our online treatment and support options, please call us at 1-800-387-6198 or visit onthewagon.ca.

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