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Tackling the mental health challenge

As the pandemic drags on, it's taking a toll on workers. Here's how employers can help
A male grocery store worker wearing a mask
Getty Images/FG Trade

As vaccinations roll out across the country, glimpses of a pandemic-free future are finally on the horizon. But for some grocery store and other front-line employees still in the thick of these uncertain times, going to work is just as anxiety-inducing as ever—especially as threats of new virus strains linger on.

Many employees in the grocery sector don’t have the luxury of working from home so they have increased stress from dealing with PPE, lack of sick benefits and “the exhaustion that comes from working longer hours,” explains Donna Koop, executive human resources (HR) relationship manager at ADP Canada, who works with grocery stores to offer HR expertise. “In addition to their own stressors, grocery staff may experience confrontations with customers since they, too, may be generally more agitated, impatient and assertive.”

Heidi Ferriman, senior vice-president, people & corporate affairs at Save-On-Foods, says over the past year and a half, retail team members have persevered through ever-changing guidelines, massive alterations to work processes and the uncertainty of the future.

“I think we can say that safety has been the biggest concern for retail workers, as well as for our customers,” says Ferriman. “In particular, team members have faced the added pressure and stress of issues around mask mandates and regulations changing almost daily earlier on in the pandemic.”

Preliminary results from the COVID Economic and Social Effects Study out of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., reveal employees are just more anxious overall. “There’s this feeling of being exposed to more unsafe workplaces, but also that the burden of work is increasing,” says one of the study’s lead researchers Stephanie Ross, director and associate professor, School of Labour Studies at McMaster. “Our data shows that people are working harder, with more tasks to do, and that combination is creating a lot of mental stress.”

Ross says the external threat from the pandemic coupled with employees feeling like they can’t say no to excess workloads is leading to a breaking point. “They reported feeling stress, exhaustion and physically ill thinking about work,” she says. “These are the kinds of indicators that are very concerning.”

Mounting mental health issues

It’s no secret that the pandemic has significantly affected mental health for countless Canadians, says Andrea Wynter, head of human resources at ADP Canada.

“According to one of our Workplace Insights Surveys conducted earlier this year, 37% of men and 45% of women report that working during the pandemic has had negative impacts on their mental health,” she says. “It’s also clear that organizations are struggling to provide support.” A survey conducted by ADP in August 2020 found that 60% of Canadians, aged 18 to 34, reported that supporting employee mental health has been among the top challenges for organizations.

Fortunately, she says the research also indicates that as organizations continue to adapt through the pandemic, they have taken a more active interest in their employees’ mental health and well-being. ADP’s latest Workplace Insights Survey, conducted in April 2021, showed almost half (46%) of employees stated their employers created initiatives to support mental health in the workplace during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, business leaders from across Canada (including leaders from grocery store chains), participated in a discussion hosted by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) on mental health and the future of work. “What became pre-eminently clear throughout the conversation was the need for authentic and vulnerable leadership from the top,” explains Chris Ide, vice-president of corporate and community partnerships at CAMH. Even with good intentions, many leaders recognized that they hadn’t created a culture of inclusion for people struggling with mental illness. “It didn’t really matter if they had the best mental health resources and programs available to their team members because there was such stigma associated with putting your hand up, disclosing your own personal status and asking for help.”

Ide says it’s important for leaders to share their personal experiences with mental health and allow themselves to be vulnerable when communicating with their employees. “When you do that, employees will be more likely to be more vulnerable with their own disclosure and accept the help they need when they need it.”

In addition to mandating mental health training for all managers, Ide says organizations should tailor their mental health supports because there is no one-size-fits-all solution. “And don’t confuse an employee’s return to work with them being fully recovered,” he says. “This is actually a critical part in the support process and employers really need to pay attention to that.”

Building long-term employee health

On a positive note, even amid escalating anxiety and mental health struggles during COVID-19, a KPMG survey conducted in April 2021 showed that 59% of Canadians felt more motivated and engaged, and found more purpose in their jobs today compared to pre-pandemic times. In fact, 36% felt their employers better recognize their contribution to the organization.

With more than 23,000 employees in Save-On- Foods retail stores across Western Canada, Ferriman says the organization’s COVID-19 response has certainly evolved over time. In addition to being vigilant in maintaining safety protocols and new operating procedures initiated during the onset of the pandemic, a dedicated COVID-19 Response Team is “available every hour of every day of the week to support the needs of our teams,” she says.

This means answering questions and managing sick and isolated team members in the event of a COVID-19 positive case, as well as working closely with a COVID-19 Task Force made up of representatives from operations, pharmacy, government relations, communications and health and safety.

“We have also collaborated with our external partners and created a dedicated space on the company’s internal team member website with COVID-19 resources for mental health support,” says Ferriman. “We have and continue to share with our teams the outpouring of thank-you messages, gifts and cards from our extremely supportive customers.”

Others like Maple Leaf Foods have taken steps to encourage their leaders to talk about their own experiences with mental health challenges, while also completing a three-hour training session on mental health and how to support their teams. In 2020, the company also launched its “You Are Not Alone” program—featuring a video speaker series of experts, clinical psychologists and others—to address employee questions and provide tools on mental health and wellness topics. (Speakers have ranged from healthcare experts to Canadian Olympian Marnie McBean.)

While the program was initially developed to address the needs of employees with acute mental health challenges, the company quickly revamped it within a few weeks to make it accessible to all team members potentially struggling during COVID-19.

“We didn’t know how it was going to go, but we had 700 people join that first session,” says Peter Neufeld, vice-president of leadership at Maple Leaf Foods. “It was a simple design, but the feedback was tremendous—even in a call of that magnitude, people still had a sense of connection and had a feeling of support.” The sessions are also posted on the company’s intranet, so employees can watch them when convenient.

At the end of March, M&M Food Market initiated an anonymous 1-800 line for its head office and corporate team members so they could call any time with questions around health, finance, family etc., along with a mobile app and online-based employee assistance program they could use for all kinds of resources. “When we realized how many people were using it, we now want to introduce it to all our franchise partners as a benefit opportunity for their people,” says M&M’s vice-president of people Pegi Klein Webber. “We’re a pretty nimble organization so we pivoted quickly and took our HR and training team and turned them into a resource centre.”

While it’s been a very challenging time, she says it’s also been a catalyst for rethinking workplace practices to support employees better. “It’s about creating a workplace that is going to sustain itself long after COVID-19 is behind us,” says Klein Webber.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer's June/July 2021 issue

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