How to boost employees’ mental health in pandemic winter

Mini-guide provides strategies, tips for people struggling with isolation, uncertainty

How to boost employees’ mental health in pandemic winter
It’s important for people to exercise and move around so they’re not just sitting in front of a computer or the TV in the winter, says one expert.

As many workers struggle to get through another tough Canadian winter amid the COVID-19 threat, the Mental Health Commission of Canada (MHCC) has come up with a resource for employers to help people cope.

The Mini-Guide to Help Employees’ Mental Health Through Winter is a 23-page guide that provides tips and strategies, such as building a support system, building new routines, creating a coping plan, setting new goals and seeking professional help.

Not everybody struggles through winter ― there are a lot of people who really thrive ― but this is for those people who do find the season particularly difficult, says Liz Horvath, manager of workplace mental health at MHCC in Ottawa.

“We know that this winter, especially under the veil of the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be compounding effects of regular winter doldrums that many people experience.”

Many employees are feeling lonely and isolated as lockdowns continue, and many are feeling the pinch financially due to layoffs or furloughs, she says.

“There’s people that are [experiencing] feelings of sadness and loss and possibly even grief, as they may have lost loved ones, whether it’s due to COVID or possibly other causes of death, where they may not have been able to go to the hospital to be with their loved one. And so that is really a very difficult thing to go through,” says Horvath. “We hear people talking about ‘COVID fatigue’ and the ups and downs of our emotions ― it’s certainly compounding those feelings that we already have.”

Stressors and strategies

The guide advises people to take inventory of the winter stressors that they experience and the coping mechanisms that they’re using to manage those stressors, says Horvath.

“We should be taking inventory of things like ‘How does a lack of sunlight affect me? Maybe I need to get some light therapy or increase my vitamin D intake.’ Or if I’m struggling with my eating habits, perhaps consulting a nutritionist, planning healthy meals. If it’s isolation that I’m dealing with, how do I continue to maintain those social interactions and make sure that I’m connected with people, whether it’s virtually or by phone or at a distance?” she says.

Liz Horvath

“[It’s important to] keep our exercise and our movement going so that we’re not just stuck sitting in front of our computer or sitting in front of the TV ― we have to get up and move around. Maybe throw some music on and move around or have a buddy and do some exercise,” says Horvath.

Burnout should be a big concern for many employers as not everybody took their full 2020 vacation allotment.

Manager support

Managers and supervisor have an important role to play in alleviating the stressors employees are facing by deploying healthy doses of empathy, she says.

“For leaders, that can be even more difficult, especially if you’re trying to keep your business afloat and there may be a lot on your plate. [It’s about] having that empathy to recognize that we are all in this together, having that empathy to recognize ‘I’m going through a difficult time but this other person is also going through a difficult time,’ showing that you’re really listening to that person. And showing appreciation for the effort they’re putting in and showing flexibility so that you can help people succeed. These kinds of gestures are going to go a long way in making people feel valued.”

The guide also emphasizes the value of regular check-ins with employees.

“If somebody is working from home, then they’re feeling much more isolated and may not be able to reach out. And the reason that this is so important is because stigma tends to prevent more people from reaching out for mental health support when needed. Prior to the pandemic, we knew that 64 per cent of people that were experiencing mental health challenges did not reach out for help because of stigma,” says Horvath.

Educating and reminding employees about the benefits available to help with mental health is key but “working with management to help define what flexibility really looks like” can be vitally important, she says.

“Sometimes the message that comes across can be ‘We are going to be flexible with you, we understand that you’re dealing with a lot of things, as long as you get the work done, that’s fine.’ Sometimes the message that comes across with that is ‘I have to homeschool my kids, take care of this, take care of that, and then work until two in the morning to get my work done.’ Helping to define what flexibility really looks like is one part of it.”

It’s important to be careful with the language that we use, says Horvath.

“If we consistently hear things like doom and gloom or we hear ‘COVID fatigue,’ the more we focus on COVID fatigue, the more fatigued from COVID we will be; whereas, if we focus on hopefulness and that this is a temporary situation and we are resilient and ‘We will get through this together,’ then that’s what we focus on and we can help each other that way.”

Overall, mental health in Canada is at its lowest level since April, according to a recent report from Morneau Shepell.

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