As public health guidelines allow us to resume in-person work and learning, many people have returned to their physical workplace or classroom for the first time in several months. While this may be a welcome return for some, the months of social distancing, remote interactions, and rapidly changing public health measures may make the transition to in-person environments challenging. Do your employees have the support they need to ensure that their return to in-person work, along with their children’s return to school, is smooth, particularly amidst ongoing challenges and developments in the COVID-19 landscape?

Returning to the workplace

As employees return to the workplace, the “re-entry” challenges they face are amplified because they have been home and separated from social situations for a very long time. As reported by Lifeworks, the Mental Health Index (MHI) of the working population—which measures the mental health state of adults in specific geographic regions—has decreased by a factor of 11.8. Typically, a decrease in the MHI by a factor of two is concerning, making this recent drop in the MHI an indicator of a mental health crisis in our working population. Given this context, it’s even more crucial for employers to support their employees wherever possible.

When it comes to returning to work, the Cleveland Clinic recommends that employees take a gradual approach to shifting their work environment back to the office, stating, “Don’t jump right in. Put your toe in the water.” There are several actions employees may want to consider regarding the physical adjustment of returning to the office:

  • Tidy up: Adjustments or a reorganization of an employee’s workspace can help them to adjust to their environment again
  • A wardrobe makeover: Employees may wish to consider purchasing new work clothes to add excitement to the idea of a return to work
  • Establish a better sleep schedule: For many, typical routines and work hours may have changed dramatically with the onset of the pandemic; employees should consider resuming a consistent sleep schedule to ensure they’re well-rested before returning

To mentally prepare for in-person working, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has also provided a number of points to help employees adjust to a new work environment. They may wish to adopt some of these key strategies to support mental health and resiliency:

  • Identify thoughts and emotions that arise with new routines and accept them as normal; feeling frustrated, sad, or angry is valid
  • Focus on the present by taking things one day, one week, and one month at a time
  • Recall past situations of coping with difficulties despite feeling anxious or helpless
  • Catch any upsetting feelings before “they run away on you”
  • Practice self-compassion and kindness

Returning to school

After months of social isolation, children continue to face challenges returning to school as they adapt to in-person learning and feel safe outside of the home. Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) has developed the “School Mental Health Backpack” to help this transition. As your employees with children prepare for fall and winter months with the possibility of changes in public health guidelines, vaccine developments, variants of concern, and more on the horizon, remind them to keep the following tips in mind:

  • Shine a spotlight on what is still within your child’s control as opposed to focusing on what’s not
  • Recognize where you can help strengthen routines and make them more comforting for your children
  • Help your child to learn about and understand the new rules to keep them safe at school
  • Encourage your child to ask lots of questions
  • Help your child to identify a safe person at school
  • Call on friends, peers, and classmates to help your child transition

Employees may also encounter separation anxiety in their younger children, as their children lose their proximity to their caregivers, along with the safety and security of their home. For months, young children have been told to stay distanced from people and kept out of school because it was unsafe; the dramatic shift of returning to school, as caregivers explain to children that it is now safe, can be confusing and frightening. For your employees that are parents or caregivers, there are a number of actions that can aid in tempering a child’s feelings of separation:

  • Open communication: Validate their feelings with calm and positive responses
  • Introduce separation gradually: Practice times apart to ease the transition, initially short and then increasing
  • Have a routine: Involve them in getting ready for school and making it a fun activity
  • Seek help: Reach out for guidance from a mental health expert if the anxiety does not subside

Employer support for employees and children

There are many free resources you can provide to your employees to support them and their families during this challenging time, and the listing below provides many supportive tools you may want to share with your staff. In addition to supporting the resiliency of your employees, you may also want to understand your legal obligations with respect to developing a safety protocol, along with the questions you can ask regarding vaccinations and travel. Cowan has partnered with Miller Thomson LLP to provide you with a 20-minute legal session for a $100 fee to get you started. Please contact your consultant for additional details.

We are here to support you and your employees through these unprecedented times.