Mental distress at work during COVID-19

A proactive and considerate approach to employee health and safety will help with legal obligations, employee morale and productivity

Mental distress at work during COVID-19

by Natalie MacDonald

Whether it is at 3 a.m. — the time of writing this article — or in the middle of the day, after hearing the constant evolving newsfeed reporting the number of cases and deaths, we are all feeling the mental distress of COVID-19.

It has changed the way we interact with one another, the way we shop, exercise, socialize, and work.

The new workplace is no longer about a physical space with human interaction, but rather has become a Zoom meta space — with interaction through emails and telephone calls where tone cannot be interpreted, and constantly unanswered emails driven by the need for instantaneous communication leaves us constantly jumping from one thought to another, with little or no time for thinking.

All of this is bound to take a toll, and this plays itself out in different ways — our home has become our workspace and our workspace has become our home.

The rate at which the mental distress of employees is rising is alarming. There are insufficient resources to assist, and as we grapple with what has become the new norm, employers and employees need to realize this fact and take action.

As employees become more and more stressed, their rate of attentiveness, empathy and ultimately productivity slows. Although work is performed faster, it may be done incorrectly, haphazardly, or just churned out to keep up with demand. This applies for everyone from the C-suite to the workers on the line.

Moral duty to act
To foster a more attentive, empathetic, and ultimately productive workplace, employers must recognize this and act. Not because there is a legal duty to do so, but because there is a moral one.

Employers must recognize that there are still only eight hours in a regular workday, nor more and no less. That has not changed just because we are living at home. Employees must be encouraged to carve out their day. They need to know that they are not alone in their thoughts. They need to know that they do not need to answer everything immediately, that they can think, they can breathe, they can take time out to see their kids, their spouse, and pat the dog. They need to know what resources are available to help them deal with this crisis.

If employees are actually working in the employer’s physical workplace, employers can play a pivotal role by ensuring employees feel safe and healthy in their workplace. By doing things like committing employees to confirm they are not sick, and have not been exposed to anyone who is, by supplying any and all personal protective equipment needed for the employees to feel safe, by rearranging common rooms and desk space to ensure physical distancing remains the norm, by supplying hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial soap, and ensuring the space is regularly cleaned, employers can make a difference in the lives of their employees. The threat of the risk of dying is in everyone’s minds as we see the world-wide deaths approach 300,000.

We need a kinder, gentler workplace now more than ever before — where discipline is still present, but carefully thought out; where employers are open to discussion with the employee; and where employers are proactive, not reactive.

Without such an approach, we are not only doomed to a much more lonely, robotic existence, but the productivity will cripple whatever is left of the business at the end of the day.

Natalie C. MacDonald is the owner and founder of MacDonald & Associates, a Toronto boutique employment law firm. For more information visit

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