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April 1 2020

'An obligation just like safety': Employers urged to keep workers' mental health at forefront

This article was originally published in the Calgary Herald on April 1, 2020

Large and small businesses are being urged to put formal plans in place to care for their employees’ mental health as it becomes apparent the COVID-19 crisis is likely to last months, not weeks.

The Calgary Chamber of Commerce is encouraging employers and managers of all its member businesses to reach out to their team members individually and ensure they are holding up during this time of intense stress.

“It’s an obligation, just like safety. One hundred per cent, you need to be doing it,” Sandip Lalli said. “If you have 600 staff, then find 10 that you haven’t talked to yet. If you have three, have a virtual lunch with all of them. This should be on the top of your list.”

The Chamber, which was forced to lay off 30 per cent of its staff earlier this week due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, has launched what it calls its #Here4YYC webinar series to help Calgary businesses navigate topics such as mental health, resiliency and employee morale.

Lalli said it’s important for employers to be as honest and transparent as possible, whether it is about what a company is doing to reduce or avoid layoffs or how long it believes these exceptional circumstances will last.

“We have told our team, ‘we are in this state until about August,’ ” she said. “And I think providing that line of sight has actually been helpful.”

It’s also important to throw some of the old rules out the window, said Usman Tahir Jutt, owner of Chirp Foods Inc., one of Canada’s largest franchise McDonald’s businesses with more than a dozen restaurants in Calgary and southern Alberta. Chirp Foods has had to temporarily lay off approximately 200 workers as a result of COVID-19.

“HR will dictate certain ways to terminate somebody, but I’ve thrown that rule book out,” Jutt said. “Because at the end of the day, I’m a person, they’re a person. I didn’t plan to lay them off and they definitely didn’t plan to be laid off.”

Jutt said in normal circumstances, an employee is given a layoff notice and left to go on their way. But during COVID-19, Chirp Foods has been reaching out to its laid-off employees every two to three days, to make sure they are doing OK and that they know how to access EI and other supports.

“I want them to remember not that we laid them off, but that we did everything we possibly could to care,” Jutt said. “Because at the end of the day, I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror. And also because when this (pandemic) finally gets resolved, I’m going to need these people.”

Jutt added he is also trying to be more available than ever to his remaining staffers, taking time to ask them if they feel safe coming to work and even allowing them to take free food home to their families.

“(COVID-19) has highlighted to me that as entrepreneurs, we weren’t mentally prepared for something like this. We’re not used to talking about mental health,” he said. “I hope that when this is over, the tone of conversations about mental health in the workplace has changed.”

Employers and managers who are not working to create a sense of connection with their team members — whether through regular video-call check-ins, virtual lunches or Zoom happy hours — are putting the morale of the team as well as individuals’ health at risk, said Jenn Lofgren, founder of Calgary-based leadership and executive coaching company Incito.

“You need to be doing this stuff. It’s not just a physical health risk we’re in right now, there is a mental-health risk for people right now,” Lofgren said, adding it’s OK for managers to call their employees and ask them how they’re doing with child care or other personal challenges related to COVID-19.

She said it’s also vital for employers and managers to take care of themselves — ideally by finding someone they can talk to about the difficult decisions and immense strain they are facing.

“They bear the emotional burden of the tough decisions and they’re acutely aware of how these decisions impact individuals,” Lofgren said. “Mental health in the workplace starts with how the leaders are caring for their own mental health.”