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Returning to work: COVID-19 and mental health considerations

Murray Murphy, QC, CPHR, and Charlotte Jenkins

Mental health impacts of COVID-19

The mental health impacts of COVID-19 have been, and will continue to be significant and wide-spread around the world. Individuals are continuously required to adapt their daily lives to reflect the ever-changing public health and government directives.

As restrictions began to be implemented across the country, Canadians felt stress and anxiety related to isolation, loss of income, increased time in abusive homes and relationships, the fear of illness and death and the grief associated with seeing loved ones ill and dying as a result of COVID-19.

As we look towards a return to work and the re-opening of many businesses across the country, the anxiety and fear associated with COVID-19 will remain. As individuals are required to return to their physical workplaces, many will be faced with stress and anxiety related to the possibility of exposing themselves and their families to COVID-19 and the stress associated with the re-integration into a modified workplace.

There are a number of resources available for those suffering from stress and anxiety related to COVID-19. The Canadian Mental Health Association has outlined a number of ways in which individuals can cope with stress and anxiety through these difficult times. Employers can share these tips with their employees as they are brought back into the workplace.

  • Accept that some anxiety and fear is normal – COVID-19 is new and we continue to learn about it and its impacts daily. The uncertainty and fluidity of this situation can be anxiety inducing for many.
  • Seek credible information and try to avoid information overload – It’s important to stay informed and up-to-date on the current status of COVID-19 in your area, so be sure to seek out credible sources for information. Reliable sources could include your local government’s publications, the World Health Organization or Health Canada. Exposing yourself to a constant stream of news, whether credible or not, should be avoided. Finding the proper balance of staying informed and avoiding an information overload can be very important to managing stress and anxiety.
  • Make unplugging a priority – Make sure to take time to unplug from social media and news outlets. Instead, take time to exercise, read, or do anything else that brings you joy without being plugged into your phone, tablet or other electronic device.
  • Seek support – Now, more than ever, it is important to ask for help when you are feeling overwhelmed. We are all navigating COVID-19 together, and asking for support from loved ones, friends, or colleagues can make you feel less alone.
  • Maintain healthy eating and avoid using mind-altering substances – Maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding over-consumption of alcohol, tobacco, or other substances can assist in minimizing your stress and anxiety.

Can an employee refuse to return to work due to fear of contracting COVID-19?

An employee cannot refuse to return to work due to a fear of contracting COVID-19. However, an employee does have a right to refuse work if the work environment is unsafe. As such, an employer has an obligation to maintain a safe working environment for all employees that are called back to work. This will include making modifications to physical workspaces and workdays to allow for proper physical distancing and sanitation protocol to be followed.

Potential occupational health and safety complaints related to COVID-19

Due to the heightened anxiety of many employees, occupational health and safety complaints have become more prevalent across the country. In Ontario, there were 1,440 COVID-19 related workplace safety complaints made in the month of March, and twice as many total complaints made compared to the monthly average for 2019.1 As employees transition back to their physical workspaces, employers will likely see work refusals and occupational health and safety complaints in any of the following circumstances:

  • A positive COVID-19 test in the workplace;
  • An employee who is considered immuno-compromised or “high risk” is asked to return to work;
  • In employment circumstances with significant exposure to the general public;
  • An employee who feels that PPE should be used, or is being used improperly; or
  • In workspaces where physical distancing is extremely difficult.

This is not an exhaustive list of the potential workplace issues that might result in an occupational health and safety complaint being made due to a perceived unsafe work environment. In addition, the determination of what might be considered a workplace hazard will ultimately be fact-specific. As such, the risk assessment undertaken by each employer should attempt to mitigate and assess any potential workplace hazards that would be specific to the employer’s particular workplace and business type.

How can employers support the mental health of their employees during the return to work?

CBC News reported that a recent poll indicated that only 25% of employees are ready to return to a regular work schedule. 75% of employees felt that they would prefer to work from home more often, or only go into work when it is needed.2

It is important for employers to understand that many employees will be feeling stress and anxiety surrounding a return to the workplace, and employers should do their best to put their employees at ease. Employees will have many questions, including:

  • Is it safe to return to work?
  • Does my employer have the right protocols and equipment in place to keep me safe?
  • Could a return to work affect my loved ones?

Have a plan

Many of the protocols that will be implemented to keep employees safe in the workplace will depend upon the nature and location of the workplace itself. As employers begin to implement the various federal and provincial public health requirements for re-opening businesses, it will be important for each employer to do a risk assessment of their own business to ensure their employees will have access to a safe workspace.

Once a risk assessment has been completed, employers should implement a plan prior to bringing employees back into the workplace. Communicating with employees that there is a plan in place that complies with all federal and provincial public health requirements and takes into consideration the unique circumstances of your workplace will help employees feel at ease. You should also ensure that employees know that they can ask questions about the employer’s plan at any time.

Communicate with your employees

As employers, it will be important to reassure your employees that it is okay to be feeling anxious and stressed about returning to work. Employers should do their best to ensure that employees feel supported through this transition. Maintaining clear and open channels of communication will be crucial. Providing frequent updates on modified protocols, normalizing conversations about stress and anxiety in the workplace and maintaining open channels of communication between employees and management are simple ways to ensure employees feel heard and appreciated.

Highlight mental health services available through group health plans

If your employees have access to a group health plan, ensure that they are aware of any mental health services available to them through this plan. Making sure that employees are aware of the many tools they have access to can assist in making them feel supported through their transition back to work.

Recognize that things are not ‘normal’

As we transition through the various phases of re-opening, it will be important for those involved to acknowledge and understand that things have not, and likely will not, go back to ‘normal’. There will be long-term changes made to the way businesses operate.  Acknowledging this reality is important. Employers should do their best to support their employees as everyone begins the process of finding a ‘new normal’.

Flexible use of vacation

As employees return to work, there are a number of ways that an employer can ease restrictions on the use of accrued vacation time to help relieve the stress of their employees. It should be noted that all employee use of vacation time requires approval by the employer, and therefore, any decision to ease vacation restrictions in any manner rests solely with the employer.

Use of accrued vacation time to delay return to work

If a situation arises where employees are recalled from layoff but maintain that they are too fearful of contracting COVID-19 to come to work, an employer could give that employee the option of using up any accrued vacation time to delay their return to work. Of course this is not a long-term solution for an extremely fearful employee, however, it is one option of how to approach a sensitive return to work situation with an employee. Again, as vacation is required to be approved by the employer, an employee cannot unilaterally make the decision to use vacation time to delay a return to work.

Temporarily permit rollover of accrued vacation

Because of the significant restrictions that have been placed on travel across the world, many travel plans have been postponed or cancelled. As a result, many of your employees will have been unable to use their accrued vacation time. As an employer, you have the ability, if it is feasible for your business, to allow employees to carry over accrued vacation time. This would allow your employees to take vacation once it is permissible to travel, without fear of losing their vacation time at the end of the fiscal year. If an employer chooses to allow for rollover of accrued vacation, they should make it clear to employees that the policy is temporary and should also set out time frames for when the vacation roll-over will stop (for example, employees will be permitted to rollover vacation for one year only).

Flexibility when considering vacation requests

As travel restrictions are lifted and various regions around the world look towards a new normal, many employees will be eager to take a vacation. The stress and anxiety of COVID-19 combined with many cancelled trip plans will likely result in an overload of vacation requests within a short period of time. As an employer, it will be important to be flexible with vacation scheduling for employees. Allowing time for meaningful vacation is more important now than ever before.

In conclusion, employees and employers will have to be sensitive towards the stresses and anxieties being felt by many people during these trying times. The return to work will be difficult for many, and communication, co-operation and compliance with public health protocols will make the return to work process easier for all involved.


1 Sarah Dobson, “Safety complaints double in March in Ontario” (20 April, 2020), Canadian HR Reporter, online:<https://www.hrreporter.com/focus-areas/legislation/safety-complaints-double-in-march-in-ontario/328848>.

2 CBC News, “Anxiety surrounds returning to work during pandemic” (May 7, 2020), online: <https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1734692931645> at 00h:00m:30s.


This article is provided for general information only. If you have any questions about the above, please contact a member of our Labour and Employment group.

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