How Workplaces Can Support Mental Health as We Evolve Toward a Post-Pandemic Mindset

Workplace Mental Health

By age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will experience or have experienced a mental illness, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association. Photo: Jetta Productions Inc./Getty Images

The first week of May is Mental Health Week in Canada and here’s what that means: Either you or the person next to you, if you’re both over the age of 40, will have or have had a mental illness.

It’s a fact.

In any given year, one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health issue or illness.

And by age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will experience or have experienced a mental illness, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

The pandemic, with its social isolation and anxiety about health, has certainly made things worse. But adjusting as daily life slowly evolves to accommodate a post-pandemic mindset — with a disease we still don’t know a lot about eventually becoming endemic and in some cases, a return to the workplace being encouraged — is proving to be significantly unsettling as well.

“At first, people found it stressful to be doing everything online and now they’re finding it stressful to having everything taken away from them that was available online,” says Stacey Kesten, a community health psychologist with a private practice in Sydney, British Columbia.

A Premature Return to Normal?


Dr. Kesten, 39, suggests that part of the problem right now is the premature attempt to return to normal.

“We’re talking as if we’re over it, but we’re still dealing with all the stress and anxiety every single day,” she says. “It’s a false narrative that we are now on the other side. The expectations are there, especially for work — and if anything, they’ve increased — but things haven’t gone back to normal.”

She adds, “The accumulation of stress and anxiety over the last couple of years has brought such a stark difference in how people relate to each other. There’s not much compassion anymore.”

The Mental Health Week theme acknowledges our compassion burnout.

The theme: Empathy.

“We chose empathy,” explains CMHA’s national director of public policy, Sarah Kennell, “because relationships and ways to be empathetic with each other have been compromised during COVID.”

It’s time, she says, to re-centre a conversation around empathy, on a personal level and in the broader political context as well because of polarization and tension around lockdowns, mandates, vaccination and masking.

The focus on mental health this month, Kennell suggests, is an opportunity to bring an empathetic lens to the tensions that have arisen in relationships during COVID, and to the rising tensions we’re seeing playing out politically in society.

“Empathy is about recognizing that, rather than judgments or assumptions, we need to offer compassion, solidarity and support — to tune in before weighing in.”

Workplaces Need to Be More Supportive


It’s also about workplaces recognizing that employees want the flexibility, remote work option and accommodations for family needs that were provided during the pandemic to continue, with a new normal for work.

“Workplaces need to be more supportive, especially for women and parents,” says Kesten,  “Policies need to be more empathetic. The system needs to change permanently.”

CMHA’s Kennell reports that “policies which have required mandatory return to work have been very detrimental from a mental-health perspective. The pandemic forced us to re-centre relationships with work.”

Now, she says, a new world of work needs to bring accommodations and flexibility to address some of the long-standing stresses in work culture that have led to the burnout rate and mental health leaves.

“We need to re-examine priorities and work towards lifestyles that are more balanced.”

While the new normal is a work in progress and therefore unsettling, people are still grieving the loss of a normal, predictable pre-pandemic life, says Kennell. “Dealing with that grief and what life used to be like can take time and can take significant toll on relationships.”

We’re trying to figure out what this new normal looks like.

“We’re dealing with compounding and competing stresses at the same time,” she notes.

It’s no wonder then that 50 per cent of Canadians are experiencing mental health issues and that empathy is encouraged.

The Art of Listening


Even if empathy can’t be mandated, the CMHA does offer a Mental Health Week Toolkit with everything you need to spread empathy far and wide,” including Instagram stickers and ready-to-post social media messages and images as well as these tips for listening to others:

1. Make it known that you are listening. 

Even if it is very clear to you that you are giving someone your complete attention, simple phrases like ‘’I’m here for you’’ or ‘’I’m listening’’ can go a long way and be very meaningful.  

2. Avoid distractions. 

Our lives are full of distractions and making space to really listen can improve your connection with the other person. That might mean simply going somewhere where you won’t be disturbed, silencing your email and text notifications, or turning off your phone altogether. 

3. This is not about you. 

Showing someone empathy is not about what you feel, think or see as the right thing to do. Instead, it’s about trying to put yourself in their shoes. Avoid the urge to give advice or your opinion right away and focus on what they are saying, feeling, etc. Check yourself: if you’re “listening” to a friend or colleague and end up talking more than they do, you may not be really listening. 

4. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to get it right. 

Self-consciousness can get in the way of quality listening. It is hard to be truly attentive when you are focused on not making a mistake or on trying to find the perfect thing to say next. Remember, you are not there to fix the other person or their problem. You are there being present and letting the other person know you understand.  

5. Don’t underestimate the power of real listening. 

Have you ever said ‘’I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more” or ‘’I don’t know what to say’’ when someone has shared or even vented? Chances are the response has been some variation of: ‘’Don’t be sorry, I feel so much better just getting it off my chest!’’ By offering someone an attentive ear, you are already doing so much.

6. Beware of comments that accidentally undercut the other person. 

It can be hard to hear that someone you love is suffering, and you may be tempted to respond: ‘’Don’t be sad!’’ or ‘’Stop worrying, it’s not that bad!’’ Although you might have the best of intentions, such a response can make someone feel like you aren’t taking their pain seriously. They might feel that you are “invalidating” or “minimizing” their feelings. When in doubt, rephrasing can go a long way. Rephrasing is restating in your own words what you heard someone express. It shows the other person you’re listening and offers an opportunity to make sure you’ve understood correctly.

For example, a friend tells you how overwhelmed she feels about all her projects at work. You could rephrase by saying: ‘’Sounds like you’ve got a lot on your plate at work right now. It does seem overwhelming.’’ When done well, rephrasing can be a powerful tool to make someone feel heard. 

The art of listening is like any art — it requires practice and commitment. The more empathic conversations you have, the more comfortable you will be at listening!  


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