A sometimes-overlooked issue in our response to COVID-19 is how to help employees recovering from the virus transition back to work.
The process of returning to work can cause worry, fear or anxiety, says Katie Bobra, a WSPS Workplace Mental Health Consultant. This can exacerbate mental health effects associated with the virus. For example, a returning employee may feel shame and worry about negative reactions from co-workers. "Stigma associated with COVID-19 is a very real thing," says Katie.
Employees with prolonged symptoms or "long COVID" may also be anxious about returning to work with brain fog, physical limitations or reduced stamina. "Support and understanding are critical," says Katie, "as well as taking tangible steps to ease the return." Katie outlines four key steps below.
1. Reduce stigma. "When employees are away for days, weeks or even months due to COVID-19, the absence may contribute to stigma and misunderstanding," says Katie. For instance, people required to assume an absent employee's responsibilities may resent the extra workload, blame the person for getting sick, or fear contracting COVID-19 themselves. These beliefs could prompt negative comments or attempts to ostracize the employee on their return.
Here are some strategies for mitigating stigma:
- share information about the virus and long-term effects based on trusted sources, such as public health. "This can help create a healthier environment with open dialogue and reduce stigma."
- correct any misinformation that is circulating in the workplace
- remind and reassure employees about what your organization is doing to keep the workplace safe - masks, distancing, screening, etc.
- ensure employees have opportunities to share their concerns with their supervisor in a non-judgemental way
- send the message that employees who contract COVID-19 "are valuable members of the team, that you wish them well in their recovery, that you look forward to welcoming them back, and that they are to be treated with respect," says Katie.
- monitor workloads, and shift priorities to prevent an undue burden on employees.
2. Plan for the recovering employees return to work. Most employees will recover and return to work within a couple of weeks, but some may have residual symptoms, or long COVID, which can last for months. "Keep in regular contact with people who are on leave with COVID-19. This shows your support and that you are focusing on them as an individual, which can help reduce concerns about their own return."
"Plan the return to work on a case-by-case basis," says Katie. Provide accommodations based on the individual's need. For instance, employees suffering from fatigue may require a gradual return to full hours. Those experiencing shortness of breath may need more frequent breaks or modified duties. Those who are regaining physical strength may need to resume gradually the strenuous work they did before. Those experiencing brain fog may benefit from regular check ins and support from their supervisor or colleagues to help them with prioritizing and decision making.
"Be aware that someone who is experiencing long COVID may require additional and flexible sick leave after they return or an adjustment to their return-to-work plan," notes Katie.
3. Ensure returning employees prioritize their own self-care. "Oftentimes, you see these employees pushing themselves too hard, which can slow the pace of recovery." Self-care involves monitoring and managing symptoms, seeking medical advice, getting plenty of rest and sleep, and pacing activities appropriately. Encourage employees with ongoing symptoms to speak to their supervisor if they feel work needs to be adjusted.
4. Support employees' mental health. Provide a psychologically safe workplace. "Share resources - your employee family assistance program (EFAP) as well as community resources, such as Wellness Together Canada. "This 24/7 support service, developed by the federal government in response to the pandemic, offers a variety of mental health and substance abuse resources online and telephone counselling. It's confidential and free."
How WSPS can help
Sign up for these training opportunities, which could benefit all employees:
- Leading for Psychological Safety in Challenging Times (1-day classroom training, in person or virtually; can be delivered on site).
- Workplace Mental Health: How Managers Should Respond, WSPS (half-day training, in person or virtually; can be delivered on customer site)
- Reducing Mental Health Stigma in the Workplace, CCOHS (30-minute eCourse)
Chat with our duty consultant on how a WSPS Workplace Mental Health/Healthy Workplace Consultant can help you build a healthier workplace.
Visit the WSPS COVID-19 Microsite to explore all our mental health and COVID-19 resources - articles, eCourses, guidelines, checklists, and more.
The information in this article is accurate as of its publication date.