The third Monday in January is colloquially known as “Blue Monday,” the so-called saddest day of the year. It sums up the feeling of come down after the holiday season, and the cold, dark days often associated with January.
This year, Blue Monday is January 18, and seems to hit especially hard. The promise of vaccines has faltered. Supply appears limited and roll-out has been slow. On top of that, the province has instituted a second state of emergency and many of us find ourselves out of work, or ordered to stay home, perhaps balancing a couple of school-age children.
A recent report by Morneau Shepell confirms this reality. Its December Mental Health Index Report found that 35% of workplace supervisors expressed concern about the mental health of their employees and 27% reported that their employees were less productive than before the pandemic began.
Against this backdrop, it is all the more important that employers look to support staff experiencing struggles with mental health. This can be easier said than done. There is a fine line to walk between accommodation and employee rights to privacy. There are, however, a number of steps that employers can take to help their employees and ease the burden:
- Lead from the front: your organization’s leadership should acknowledge the incredibly difficult circumstances with which many employees are contending. Encourage managers to keep open lines of communication and have regular check-ins to make sure staff are doing ok, and offer support where possible. For example, institute a more flexible work schedule for staff now balancing their job with helping their school-age children learn remotely.
- Remind staff of available supports: if your organization offers paid sick leave and/or counselling services through an Employee Assistance Program, be sure that your staff are aware of these programs and encourage them to use them, as needed.
- Respond promptly and compassionately: if an employee approaches your organization seeking help for a health issue, respond meaningfully and in good faith. If you require information from their health care provider, let them know. Inform yourself of any restrictions on their ability to work and/or any reasonable accommodations that may be required. While it is important to engage in a dialogue, be mindful of the employee’s right to privacy. Employers are entitled to know an employee’s prognosis, and to have sufficient information to ensure health and safety in their workplace. They are not, however, entitled to know the employee’s diagnosis. Thus, these conversations should be approached with care. Beyond that, employers should be sure to assist any staff taking medical leave by providing all necessary forms and keeping channels of communication open.
- Look for changes in employee behaviour: employees experiencing mental health issues may not always be able/prepared to seek help or disclose that they are experiencing illness. As such, by keeping in regular contact with employees (particularly if they are working remotely) will better equip you to identify unusual or erratic behaviour that may signify an underlying health issue. For example, if you have a competent, long-serving employee working from home and she suddenly starts to miss meetings, and is late in submitting work, you should speak with the employee first to understand why this change has occurred. Employers should refrain, particularly in the current climate of lockdowns and remote work, from jumping straight to discipline. Again, employers need to be careful in how they approach these situations. It is important to strike a balance between enquiring as to whether an individual needs accommodation of any kind, and being respectful of privacy rights.
Ultimately, now is a difficult time for all of us. People are worn down. Even the most resilient may be struggling to keep all the balls in the air. Employers cannot lose sight of this reality. By taking a proactive and thoughtful approach to staff relations, you may see real benefits: lowered absenteeism, happier employees, better morale and higher productivity. Like everything else, Blue Monday will come and go. By working together now as a team, employers have the opportunity to not only weather the storm but to create a resilient and strong workplace culture.