Workplace wellness strategies for the post-pandemic world

As Nova Scotians continue to process trauma from the events of the past two and a half years, the prioritization of employee mental health continues to gain momentum. 

Earlier this month, Karn Nichols, Executive Director of Canadian Mental Health Association, NS Division (CMHA) and Bradley Daye, Co-Founder and CEO Of Placemaking 4G shared wellness strategies for employers to adopt in a post-pandemic workplace. This event was held in conjunction with Canada’s Healthy Workplace Month and was offered through the Halifax Chamber of Commerce’s Power Lunch series.

For those who were unable to attend and are keen to strengthen employee wellbeing, follow along! Here we share a Q&A summarizing Karn and Bradley’s key insights. These insights will help demystify contemporary workplace mental health strategies and inspire leaders to embrace cultural differences, lived experiences, and the vulnerabilities that come with being human at work.

Q: Why are organizational leaders being pushed to care more about their employee’s mental health now more than ever before?

Karn: The last few years of macro-stressors have left a trail of burnout and trauma in their wake – the COVID-19 pandemic, racial trauma and return to work, to name a few. We know that 1 in 3 Canadians say they’re struggling with mental health, and this has increased since the pandemic – during the height of it in 2020-2021, 71% of Canadian employees said they experienced burnout. (These numbers result from a CMHA National in 2021 study as well as a study done by WorkInsights). The stigma that surrounds mental health is still rampant and influences how people choose to reach out for support, or not. In fact, 80% of employees felt the stigma was alive and well in their organizations, and 52% felt that others would doubt their character if they knew they lived with mental illness.

People are leaving jobs due to mental health challenges – 68% of millennials and 81% of Gen Zers left roles in 2020 for mental health reasons. In fact, a report from RBC suggests that in 2021 half of long-term disability claims for employees aged 18 to 35 were due to mental health. Younger and traditionally underserved communities suffer the most from the consequences of inadequate mental health support. 
Collectively, we have an opportunity to use these wake-up calls to do the right thing and create better workplaces. To me, prioritizing mental health, equity, belonging and wellbeing calls for an entirely revised business strategy and an entirely new way of leading. It’s no longer something leaders can relegate to HR to take care of with an EAP plan. It requires a shift in the way we lead and a fundamental change in workplace culture.

Q: What is the role that leaders and their organizations can play to address these experiences?

Bradley: It requires organizational leaders to clearly understand and speak to the why behind their efforts to become a more inclusive and psychologically safe place to work. Employees struggle to get behind initiatives when organizational leaders are unsure how, or hesitant to model the behaviours that align with their outward messages. If you promote equitable opportunity for People of Colour, what does this look like in action at your company? How are you propelling racialized employers toward professional development or leadership opportunities? Can you speak to it with confidence when asked by stakeholders?

Doing it right requires an investment of time and learning and investment into knowledge gaps. A simple way to think about this: if you asked any of your colleagues why the leadership of that organization cares about diversity and inclusion, what would they say? This is a great benchmark to understand if and how your WHY is getting through to your team. And, leadership doesn’t just come in the form of people in leadership positions. In order for this work to progress and effect change, it needs buy-in and to be valued by employees at all levels of the organization. 

Mental health strategies can’t be left to chance. Adopting human-centric policies embeds the prioritization of wellness into the spine of your organization. Regardless of employee workload, time off should be encouraged to reduce burnout. Work-from-home policies give employees the power to do their jobs effectively and more control over their psychological safety at work. But to be proactive about workplace wellness, it can’t be left to policies and programs alone. In today’s workforce, leaders need to learn to lead with empathy if they haven’t already. When Karn talks about the need for a universally revised business strategy, I see empathy as a core competency of it. A recent Catalyst study found that 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared to 32% who experienced less empathy.

Karn: Workplace mental health is no longer the responsibility of the individual. Traditionally, our mental health was addressed behind closed doors, at the end of the work day, and away from the office. But, as we know, working from home has blurred personal and professional lines forever. It is abundantly clear that the responsibility for the care of the ‘whole person’ has become the responsibility of the collective – the organization. Mental health, equity and belonging are now considered business goals. These issues need to be part of the boardroom agenda.

“It’s up to organizations to think in terms of ‘wellbeing capital’ for their employees. In other words, creating an environment that supports psychological safety and wellbeing. A space where everyone feels safe to show up as the best and most authentic version of themselves.” – Karn Nichols

Many organizations have begun to demonstrate this commitment by hiring dedicated leaders to facilitate this change. I met folks at Deloitte last week who work with their Chief Medical Officer to design programs that support mental health and wellness at work. In 2016, KPMG hired their very first Chief Mental Health Officer along with a vision of creating a workplace where ‘people can bring their whole self to work.’ The time is now for leaders to ask themselves how they can develop their own leadership skills and strategies to promote a focus on wellbeing capital and health creation. 

Q: What does it mean to honour the ‘whole person’? How does this translate to the rapidly evolving world of work?

Karn: We found that 73% of employees would choose not to work with a colleague living with a mental illness. What does this tell you about our collective understanding of mental illness and the stereotypes we associate with it? What does this tell you about our collective ability to support and honour people in their wholeness? What is the role that employers can play in reducing that stigma? 

One size does not fit all. When it comes to the accommodations that employees need to get the job done to their fullest potential, we encourage a-one-size-fits-one outlook: nurture more sustainable ways of working where employees have autonomy over how they do their jobs. Employers who are adapting to the candidate-driven market and are offering more flexibility for work-life balance and hybrid options are seeing higher employee satisfaction and retention. 

Employers must also ensure that teams have the resources and bandwidth necessary to do their jobs effectively while remaining mentally healthy. We tend to rely on the traditional EAP programs and a $500 group insurance benefit to cover the mental health needs of our staff. This is simply not enough. Anyone who has used these services knows that these are lightweight solutions for those living with chronic mental health issues, leaving staff with partial support and serious challenges.

Employers should provide organization-wide opportunities for connection and promote ongoing, deeper one-on-one conversations between managers and direct reports as well as between colleagues. “How are you?” should always be followed up with “How can I help you?” especially at the manager level.

Bradley: We talk a lot about creating cultures where individuals can bring their whole selves to work. But there is risk in doing that if you don’t feel your authenticity will be valued by members of the team. A recent survey from Slack’s Future Forum found that only three percent of Black respondents wanted to return to the office, compared to 21 percent of white respondents. Most spaces in our society, including the traditional workplace, have largely been created by and for white people. That puts tremendous pressure on racialized folks to conform to ‘white standards’ or ‘fit in’.

Working from home means not having to be as guarded or at risk of micro (privileged) aggressions in a space that wasn’t designed with them in mind.

Post-secondary educator, Ms. Blackman-Gushway says “that authenticity is having the agency to pick and choose the parts of your identity you bring to the workplace. Employers can shoulder some responsibility by creating a more welcoming environment and leading with compassion.

She notes in a recent Globe and Mail article, that non-Black senior leaders can show empathy for Black employees by doing some introspection about whether they themselves are being authentic at work. “How are you authentically showing up and leading the way for others?”

Q: How do you recommend adopting a more human-centric culture at work?

Bradley: While safety should be a foundation, I also think it’s just the start. Employers need to take it a step further and celebrate the unique contributions of their team. A psychologically safe (and brave) workplace that centers its people, is one where employees can feel comfortable challenging each other without fear of retaliation or attack. It’s a defeating feeling when you seek to broaden someone’s awareness with a ‘may I offer you a different perspective on that..’ or an ‘I’d love to chat with you about how those words landed with me’’ and you are met with aggression or defensiveness. 

Being made aware of our faults or necessary growth areas is an opportunity to become more informed, and a better ally – but it requires vulnerability. Our team calls it ‘rumbling’ or ‘healthy friction’. When we use the term rumble, it reminds us to check our egos at the door and show up in conversation with a north star pointing at the common good for the community. It means respecting that multiple things can be true at the same time. Human beings are complex, and to simplify things, it’s human nature to create limited narratives about the people we work with. For example, our team’s certified accountant is also a diversity and inclusion facilitator and a recruiter. Most people have diverse skill sets, but this isn’t always appreciated at work. Honouring the whole person means providing opportunities for an individual to practice the skills and passions they want to hone. 

In their study, ‘Why the future of work is human’, Deloitte found that employees who have a sense of meaning and purpose are more than 4x as likely to love their jobs, and much more likely to stay. We encourage creating intentional time for employees to explore their personal purpose and values. We do this with the support of the incredible space-maker and friend, Lauren Sears, a Founding Partner at P4G, an eco-system builder and a Principal at dlm consulting.

K: Culture is created, reinforced and sustained by ongoing patterns of relationships and communications that influence psychological health and safety. This driver involves an organizational culture that reflects values that support mental health, such as trust, fairness, respect, diversity, inclusion and teamwork.

There are a couple of things that leaders can do to create a ‘human-centric’ culture at work. A place where the team can not only survive – but truly thrive:

  • Focus on the Person. Put the ‘whole human’ at the center of your work. Move from focusing  on the ROI to cultivating a culture that prioritizes and safeguards mental wellness. This will require a different type of leadership style. One that is comfortable in slowing down to take time to listen, understand and be vulnerable about their own mental health. 

  • Be Flexible. One size never fits all. It’s important to use a trauma-informed approach that meets people where they are. Each one of us brings a unique set of worldviews and experiences to the workplace.  Be thoughtful about designing programs that are not punitive or that reinforce stigma. For example – in our organization – each employee has access to 24 ‘health days’ which combine the traditional ‘sick’ and ‘mental health days’, reducing the stigma and reframing the focus to self-care. These can be taken at any time and do not require a doctor’s note. 

  • Build Organizational Capacity. We are all in this together. It’s important to provide the whole team with the tools and the language to support everyone on their mental health journey. Many organizations are offering courses like ‘Mental Health First Aid’ so that the entire team can grow their mental health literacy and their support for each other. 

  • Practice Vulnerability. Never underestimate the power of empathy and authenticity to build connection and trust. Brene Brown had it right when she said ‘ When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity’. It seems counterintuitive , but those who lead with vulnerability, gratitude and empathy will quickly learn that vulnerability is a powerful force for positive change throughout the organization. 

Where to go from here: 

To learn more about Healthy Workplace Month and find resources to help your organization prioritize mental health, check out the CMHA-NS Division’s supports here.


If you would like to learn more WorkInsights, check out their website here.

Check out a recent Huddle.Today article featuring Bradley and Karn: Who was the office built for? Why most Black workers want to keep working from home.

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