Mental health and COVID-19 for public servants: Supporting employees and teams

If you are in distress, please contact your Employee Assistance Program or nearest crisis / distress centre. If it is an emergency, call 9-1-1 or go to your local emergency department.

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Easing of COVID-19 restrictions at federal worksites New

The Government of Canada’s response to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions for federal workplaces is now available. Psychological health and safety factors have been integrated throughout the guidebook for federal organizations, including practical considerations.

Supporting yourself

As a leader, you will have any number of people depending on you for direction and emotional support in unsteady times. It’s important to take care of yourself so the busyness doesn’t lead to burnout.

In addition to our tips on protecting your own mental health, you may want to consider finding a sounding board to deal with management challenges you may be facing. With others relying on you, it is always good to have someone that you talk to when things get stressful.

Supporting individuals

Your employees may be feeling anxious or stressed due to the real or perceived threats posed by COVID-19, and it’s important for everyone in the organization to feel psychologically safe and healthy. The pandemic may also have triggered or worsened mental health issues among employees. They may be feeling anxious or stressed about family-related responsibilities that have arisen or changed because of the pandemic, such as childcare, eldercare or caring for a loved one.

It may be harder to notice whether your employees are struggling during the pandemic. You may have less contact than usual with employees due to -physical distancing measures, and working in a pandemic situation may hide or mask performance changes that could otherwise have been a symptom of a mental health issue.

If you observe a pattern of change in an employee’s performance or behavior, this may be a sign that they are experiencing a mental health issue. Download the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s Road to Mental Readiness poster (PDF) for information on signs and indicators, and actions to take at each phase of the mental health continuum.

Remember to:

  • Check in regularly with each of your employees, ideally, on a daily basis. Ask how they are doing and if they need any support from you.
  • Pay attention to signs and symptoms of mental health issues – despite your encouragement, employees may not feel comfortable asking for support for their mental health.
  • Encourage all employees to be mindful of their mental health – remote work can cause loneliness, isolation, increased difficulty in maintaining work-life balance.

In extreme cases, employees may experience mental health crises, such as substance overdoses, panic attacks or suicidal behavior. If you think one of these situations is underway, call 9-1-1 and your organization’s Employee Assistance Program for immediate crisis support. Inform your organization’s occupational health and safety coordinator, in addition to those responsible for disability management or human resources.

Disclosure of mental health issues

An employee does not have to provide you any details about their mental health situation. If the employee wants to discuss the performance issues but not their well-being, respect their wishes. If there are related performance issues that the employee does not want to discuss, you may want to contact the team in your organization that is responsible for labour relations for advice.

If an employee chooses to disclose to you that they are experiencing a mental health issue, you should contact your organization’s Employee Assistance Program for advice on how to approach or support your employee.

The support managers provide individual employees may also have an impact on the team (e.g. absence, change in working hours), you’ll need to support the team too. You should discuss with the employee what they want to share with the team and how they want this to take place. Depending on the circumstances, you may also wish to consult your organization’s human resources team for guidance on duty to accommodate, disability management and/or return-to-work.

Supporting teams

In times of crisis, your role as a supervisor, manager or executive is critical. Your people will be looking to you for guidance, support and leadership now more than ever.

Working from home, self-isolation, physical distancing, staying productive—how to balance it all? Here are some things you can do to help your teams through the disruption and uncertainty.

Connect - Your presence is important. Take advantage of the technology available to hold team huddles and maintain ongoing daily communication with your team members. Tools could include Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, text messaging, FaceTime.

Talk about it - As part of your morning huddles or other conversations, give each person the opportunity to express how they are feeling. Being heard and understood helps reduce the level of threat we are experiencing. Be sure to let your team know of all the accommodations and help available to them. Try using statements such as:

  • “I don’t expect us to deliver as quickly or as much as usual under these circumstances. Right now, I expect…”
  • “If you have any questions or concerns, or if there’s anything affecting your well-being at work, I’m here to support you.”
  • “I know you might be feeling a range of emotions right now. Myself, I’ve been feeling….If you want to talk, I’m available.”
  • “Come and talk to me if you think you may need flexible work arrangements or leave from work for a reason related to the pandemic. We can discuss options regardless of your employment status.”
  • “I know a lot of things are uncertain right now. What hasn’t changed is…”
  • “I am learning a lot through these unusual circumstances. For example…”
  • “Thank you for….great work on…etc.”

Create structure - Increasing certainty and reliability may help ease anxiety in the face of big uncertainties.

  • hold standing meetings on set days and set times, or daily if possible
  • set clear expectations, roles and responsibilities, deadlines, etc.
  • discuss what is in each person’s control, how we work, how we take care of ourselves, etc.

Be flexible - Allow your team as much flexibility as possible when it comes to their working conditions, while respecting collective agreements. Remember, some people will be trying to work while taking care of their families, but all employees need to be able to take care of themselves. Ensure your employees have access to the accommodations they need.

Share - Share information as soon as you can and talk about what it means for you and your team. Take time to mention good news stories to help boost the team’s general morale. To maintain team cohesion during this challenging time, you may want to exchange wellness tips or activity ideas amongst each other.

Increased demand on teams

You may also want to engage your staff in group discussions on how you can all support each other and on workload under these new circumstances.

Some teams may be facing increased work demands, which may trigger or worsen mental health issues amongst employees. Pay attention to workloads, encourage self-care, find ways to relieve pressure and if needed, seek assistance.

Specialized Organizational Services (SOS) provides expert assistance in helping your employees manage their health and wellness during periods of high intensity work. SOS is a part of Health Canada and their services are available on a cost-recovery basis.

For guidance on leave, remote work and other people management-related subjects during the pandemic, contact your organization’s human resources team or visit Information for Government of Canada employees: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Employees on leave

Maintaining appropriate contact with your employees while they are on leave, either related to the pandemic or otherwise, can positively influence their mental health. This contact will help employees remain connected to the workplace and will provide you with the opportunity to support or assist them.

It is important to discuss with the employee how, and how often, they would like you to be in touch, and to ensure that the employee is aware of resources for information and support, such as guidance on protecting one’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Employee Assistance Program, and the Disability Management Employee Wellness Resource.

If you have an employee currently on a gradual return-to-work plan, or an employee who is planning to return to work on a gradual or full-time basis, you should continue to implement these plans by enabling the employee to work remotely, in line with COVID-19 related directions from public health authorities.

For additional information, consult Guidance for managers: Disability Insurance (DI) Plan and Guidance for managers: Long Term Disability (LTD) claims under the Public Service Management Insurance Plan (PSMIP).

For additional guidance on leave for reasons related to illness, injury or disability, please consult Disability management in the federal public service. For guidance on leave related to the pandemic, contact your organization’s human resources team or consult Information for Government of Canada Employees: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Support for employees diagnosed with COVID-19

If an employee is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is important to show compassion for their well-being. Encourage your employee to follow the advice of their local public health authority

Employees may require leave or need some degree of accommodation. For guidance on leave, telework and human resources during the pandemic, contact your organization’s human resources team or visit Information for Government of Canada employees: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

For those who provide critical services and still need to enter the workplace, there may be stress or anxiety for those that may have been in contact with an employee diagnosed with COVID-19. Your organization’s occupational health and safety coordinator should be informed and your local public health authority can provide further guidance.

Death in the workplace

The death of an employee and colleague is a potentially psychologically traumatic event. If this occurs it is important to attend to your own needs and to the needs of your employees and coworkers. If you feel stressed or distressed, take steps to care for yourself, such as calling your organization’s Employee Assistance Program or leaning into your personal support network (friends, family etc.). Your department’s human resources division should be advised as soon as possible, to inform them and to seek advice.

Additional resources

New resources relating to protecting your mental health during COVID-19 are continually being developed, with links provided below (and will update regularly as new resources become available):

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