Returning to Work Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic – How Employers Can Help Their Employees Adjust to the New “Normal”

Jul 22, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic can make going back to work very stressful.

The COVID-19 pandemic shutdown was an unexpected and difficult experience for many businesses, affecting both employers and employees. With Ontario rolling out Stages 2 and 3 of the province’s reopening, Ontarians are finding they have many questions surrounding their return to work. With no vaccine currently available, many employees are anxious about returning to work and concerned about exposure among colleagues. Employers are now faced with not only navigating through these concerns, but also abiding by the constantly changing government regulations.

Mental health has been one of the most significant issues faced by employers and employees throughout the last few months. With many of us experiencing isolation and a growing fear of exposing ‘at-risk’ family and friends, stress and anxiety have been running high. While some of us might jump at the thought of getting back to our desks and our pre-COVID routines, returning to work has amplified some of these concerns for many others.

We all know that when we return to work, things will be different. Drastically different. Company culture and workplace operations will not be the way we left them. Despite the measures taken by employers to ensure the health and safety of their workers, employees and employers should be aware of certain regulations when contemplating return to work.

Regulations employees and employers should be aware of:

  • Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, all workers have the right to refuse work that they believe will endanger their health and safety.
  • Failure of employers to comply with the Ontario Health and Safety Act (OHSA) and its regulations in relation to COVID-19 could result in a “stop-work order” upon inspection by the Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development.
  • If a worker shows symptoms of a respiratory illness, employers should encourage them to remain at home. Based on the risk assessment, the employer may also have to take these additional steps:
    • Send all co-workers who were exposed to the worker home for two weeks and request that they self isolate and report any COVID-like illness to their employer.
    • Shut down the job site while the affected area and equipment are disinfected.

Returning to work after months of working from the security of our homes will be a challenge in the best of circumstances. With the virus still active, employers should understand that fear and anxiety will play a vital role in their return to work processes and procedures. In preparation, employers should begin working towards making the transition back into the workforce as easy as possible. In addition to ensuring that all employees are aware of and have access to mental health counselling and guidance, the Canadian Mental Health Association has outlined some useful tips to respond to employee anxiety amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

How to manage anxiety about returning to work:

  • Understand that fear and anxiety are normal in difficult times like these. It’s okay to feel stress.
  • Stay informed with reliable sources – but don’t overdo it. Allow yourself to detach from the constant influx of information surrounding the virus.
  • Take care of yourself by exercising, eating healthy, and doing the things you love. Self-care is important.
  • Lean on others if you need to. Everyone is going through similar fears and anxieties and we need to take care of each other. Seek emotional support if you need it.

Each business is different and will need a unique, targeted plan to ensure the health and safety of its workers. The plan will need to be put into place before the return of employees. Open communication about how government guidelines are being met will help ease the transition back into the workplace. By making employees feel comfortable in raising questions and concerns about these new policies, normalizing discussions of mental health, and keeping everyone updated on any changes that are occurring, employers will create an environment where their employees not only feel safe, but comfortable and appreciated.

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