Work space during a pandemic

As COVID-19 continues to influence our economy and our everyday lives, employers have had to make changes and adapt their workplace environment. With new regulations and guidelines, employers now must factor these changes into the management of their workforce and in the implementation of best practices to accommodate their employees’ wellbeing.

What Are the Challenges?

Demand for essential workforces has risen, contributing to increased workloads, and resulting in additional injuries in the workplace. In addition, employees in jobs that require frequent contact with the public and high-density work environments are often worried about their chances of contracting COVID-19 while at work. These stressful environments can result in decreased employee morale, making employees less willing to return to work after a workplace injury or illness, increasing claim duration and cost.

Non-essential workforces continue to have significant challenges after layoffs and decreased workforces, limiting or removing employers’ availability to facilitate workplace accommodations. Many employees must adjust their new routine to remote workspaces, facing isolation from coworkers, challenges in working with family and pets around, unsuitable work environments, and bad habits which could lead to increased injuries. Employers are also experiencing difficulties monitoring employees returning to work from a disability or injury, as it is challenging to supervise a remote employee’s work habits and identify any factors delaying recovery.

As a result of this unstable environment, mental health in the workplace is a growing concern. A recent poll found that 7 out of 10 Ontarians believe that there will be a ‘serious mental health crisis’ as a result of the pandemic[1]. It is not surprising that COVID-19 is having a negative impact on Canadians’ mental health, with many seeing their stress levels double since the beginning of the pandemic[2]. Many employees are struggling with fear and uncertainty about their own health and their family and friends, concerns about job security and finances, and social isolation. Exposure to high levels of stress and instability can easily translate into absenteeism, lower productivity, and increased workplace accident and disability claims for mental health and substance abuse.

Recommended Practices to Support Employers

Employers should focus on adjusting their health, wellness, and return-to-work programs and place a greater emphasis on the support channels available to promote recovery. The following practices are recommended to help create and maintain a mentally healthy and safe workplace:

  • Remodel the workplace to meet workplace safety protocols and ensure changes are communicated to all employees to reduce concerns about the risk of getting infected in the workplace
  • Facilitate video conferences and contact with employees working remotely to ensure they feel supported and included
  • Offer a broader range of virtual mental health resources to provide direct care to employees
  • Continuously make employees aware of any EAP or associated program
  • Consider flexibility with days and shifts that employees are working
  • Prepare managers to support employees who may experience mental health challenges
  • Promote resilience by sharing positive coping strategies to promote a healthy psychological workplace

For employees suffering from an illness or injury or participating in modified return-to-work programs, employers should plan to be proactive by identifying practices and measures to support employees’ recovery processes.

  • Facilitate access to medical treatment by offering resources to employees and partnering with providers to offer virtual care options
  • Ensure understanding of the duty to accommodation legislation, as employers must identify if there are barriers to an employee’s return to work and whether an accommodation is necessary
  • Create virtual return-to-work programs (such as online training) and establish measurements for monitoring and progressing these programs
  • Develop and communicate guidelines and protocols for employees returning to work in areas with greater risk of exposure to COVID-19
  • Identify creative alternatives for modified work that allow for different types of PPE and social distancing
  • Be creative and flexible in modified work options
  • Guide employees on how to set up an ergonomic workspace at home to avoid further injury and prolonged recovery
  • Increase check ins with all employees absent from work due to illness or injury to see how they are coping with their recovery

The Bottom Line

With the longevity of COVID-19 unknown causing unprecedented stress and instability in the workplace, employers need to implement measures to reduce absences, keep employees engaged, and facilitate sustainable return-to-work programs.  An effective plan for business recovery is to ensure workers remain highly productive and efficient. Therefore, investment in adapting health and wellness programs to accommodate the demands of the pandemic will not only increase the effectiveness of programs, it can also generate a favorable return and a head start for planning for the future.


1 CMHA, 2020a

2 Mental Health Commission of Canada. (MHCC). (2020a). New Nanos poll reveals people in Canada are more stressed in the era of COVID-19.


Samia Jarjoura, MBA, CHRA

Samia Jarjoura est vice-présidente du développement des affaires et des services conseil de ReedGroup, apportant plus de 15 ans d’expérience dans les domaines de la santé et des avantages sociaux, de la gestion des absences et de la santé mentale en milieu de travail.


Information provided on this blog is intended for general educational use. It is not intended to provide legal advice. ReedGroup does not provide legal services. Consult an attorney for legal advice on this or any other topic.