A Guide for Employers

Whatever your working situation has been, leading a workforce through a pandemic has had its challenges. Not only are you trying to keep yourself safe and healthy, but you are also concerned about employee wellbeing. We hope this guide provides you with helpful tips and resources as you continue to navigate through change.

On this page:

Establish clear and open communication

As you create plans for the future of your workplace, it’s important to communicate regularly with employees. Keep staff informed about new and upcoming changes as much as possible. When people are informed of what changes are coming and how things are being addressed, they are better able to cope with the change. Even if you don’t have answers to employees' questions, let them know that you understand and will follow-up with a response within a certain timeframe.

You will likely have several different things you will need to talk about with staff about as you move forward, such as COVID-19 prevention at work and vaccine status. Creating a communication plan where you describe how often you will be communicating to employees and which topics you will address or information you will provide can be very helpful. Communicating clearly and often with employees can make individuals feel more supported, respected, and understood in the workplace. Frequent communication can also help everyone feel up to date and can help ease concerns. Communicate on various platforms (e.g., meetings, huddles, virtual townhalls, webinars, fact sheets, email newsletters, stickers, posters, etc.) to help ensure that staff hear and retain what you say. 

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Mental health and wellness in the workplace

Since the pandemic began in early 2020 many individuals have experienced significant stress, both at work and at home. Employees are likely to be balancing multiple demands at home which can cause additional stress on top of work-related stress. If you notice that an employee is not quite themselves, it may be a sign that they are struggling with their mental health and/or substance use. Check-in and ask how they are doing. You don’t need to solve their problems – sometimes people just need to feel heard. Employees may be experiencing many emotions and that is normal. It is important to acknowledge these emotions and to support employees through this transition:

  • Ensure health and safety is prioritized – To help support individuals in feeling comfortable and safe in their workspace, it is your role as an employer to take all the necessary precautions to prevent COVID-19 transmission in the workplace. For more details on what you can do to ensure the health and safety of your staff check out the “Physical Health and Safety in the Workplace” section of this toolkit. Inform employees about the steps you, as an employer, are taking to keep them safe.
  • Ask employees what their needs are during this time - Involving employees in assessing their work needs during this time will provide them with some level of control over the situation. Here are a few suggestions of questions to help you get the conversation started:
    • How are you feeling about returning to the workplace? What are your concerns? What are you looking forward to?
    • What has been the most challenging about working during the pandemic?
    • How do you feel about interacting with more people in the workplace?
    • What do you need to feel comfortable/ready to work on site?
    • What additional information or resources do you need to support your well-being at work?
  • Schedule regular check-ins with employees to see how they are doing and ask how you can provide support.
  • Acknowledge the work and effort that employees are putting into adapting to this new situation and recognize their continued dedication to their job.
  • Promote positive ways to cope – Share positive coping strategies with employees to protect their mental health and promote wellness. Some workplaces benefit from formal peer support programs which provide opportunities for employees to discuss challenges with those who may have similar experiences and learn how they coped. Here are a few examples of activities to boost employee engagement, encourage positive coping strategies and maybe incorporate some team building:
    • Weekly virtual coffee breaks
    • Recognition programs
    • Self-care challenge
    • Yoga/stretching breaks
    • Lunch and learns on different health topics
    • Physical activity challenge
  • Offer flexibility and discuss ways to support employees who may still be balancing several demands.
  • Discuss accommodations - Some employees may prefer to continue working from home. Each workplace/employer will determine what their plans are moving forward in terms of where employees will work. If the plan is for employees to physically return to the workplace and an employee requests an accommodation to continue working from home, please consult with a Human Resources professional if you can. There are many reasons why an accommodation may be requested in the workplace. Refer to Workplace Strategies for Mental Health for accommodation strategies and resources.
  • Keep track of employee overtime hours – Overtime can lead to burnout which is a result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. If employees are regularly working overtime look at ways to reduce the workload or consider hiring additional resources.
  • Encourage employees to take their allotted breaks and vacation time -  We all need to take time to relax, reflect and rejuvenate, but it is even more necessary during this time of potential uncertainty and worry. Model this for employees by also making sure that you, as an employer, are taking your breaks and vacation.
  • Ensure that supports are available, and employees know how to access them - Review existing sick leave policies and benefits. It is important for people to stay home when they are sick and as an employer you can use the Ontario Income Protection Benefit to financially support staff to stay home for COVID-19 related leave, including vaccination. Review your Employee and Family Assistance Plans and mental health coverage to ensure that employees get the supports they need. Share resources about mental health and substance use supports and services that are available in the community. 

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Physical health and safety in the workplace

Talk about vaccines at work

 Ottawa Public Health (OPH) supports all workplaces to have vaccine policies for their staff. OPH does not provide specific recommendations to employers regarding mandatory vaccine policies for staff as employers need to assess their own contexts and set policy. General information and resources for businesses have been created by OPH and can be found on our webpage – including a guide on how to create a workplace vaccination policy (PDF - 198 KB). Businesses are encouraged to review and utilise these tools. 

It is not within Ottawa Public Health’s mandate to provide approval to make vaccinations mandatory for post-secondary institutions, businesses, or events. However, we strongly encourage all eligible residents get their COVID-19 vaccine to be fully protected against the virus and ensure the safety of our community. OPH strongly recommends that each organization develop a vaccine policy for your workplace as well as a safety plan to account for workplace changes as a result of the pandemic. More information on how to make a safety plan are included later in this guide.

Employers play a key role in building trust in COVID-19 vaccines among employees. Some of the benefits of discussing vaccines in your workplace include:

  • Reduced employee absences due to illness
  • Sustained workplace productivity
  • Keeping the workforce healthy by preventing employees from getting COVID-19
  • Boosting workplace morale

Here are some things that you can do as an employer to build trust in COVID-19 vaccines.

  • Lead by example, get vaccinated if you can and encourage employees to follow your lead.
  • Communicate clearly and concisely to share basic information about the vaccines and the pandemic. Sign up for the Community Operations newsletter to receive regular updates and resources that you can re-use in your own communications! 
  • Engage with staff - Consider hosting sessions for Q&As, to gather feedback and answer basic questions. Visit the COVID-19 Vaccine FAQ webpage and read the handout (PDF - 1 MB) to help you talk about vaccines with staff.
  • Offer time off, or stagger shifts to allow employees to book their vaccine appointment and get their shot - Employers can use the Ontario COVID-19 Worker Income Protection Benefit to give employees paid time off to get their vaccine.

Visit our COVID-19 Vaccine Toolkit for Employers to learn more about what you can do to promote vaccines.

Prevent COVID-19 transmission in the workplace

Prepare for future infectious disease outbreaks 

While we work to lower the transmission of COVID-19 in our community, it is important to note there are other health risks present in workplaces due to viruses or other infectious diseases. All organizations should look to the future to ensure that they are well suited, and prepared to respond to future health related incidents in the workplace.

Some things to consider in order to prepare your workplace and employees for an infectious disease outbreak, such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, or for a resurgence in the number of people being diagnosed with COVID-19 include:

  • Identify possible exposure and health risks and take steps to minimize these risks. You can do this by completing your COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plan.
  • Prepare for possible increased numbers of employee absences due to illness and other emergency related responsibilities like childcare or eldercare.
  • Explore the flexibility of policies and practices, such as teleworking arrangements, flexible hours, staggering start times, use of email and teleconferencing. Review these policies with employees.
  • Establish an emergency communication plan by identifying key contacts and establishing a chain of communication for ongoing communication with employees and business partners.
  • Have paper copies of key contact lists available in case of a power outage or other infrastructure failure as well as saving them in your work phone.
  • Develop a contingency and business continuity plan. Identify essential employees, business functions and other critical inputs such as suppliers and subcontractors required to maintain business operations. Explore ways to continue essential business operations if there are disruptions.
  • Share your response plans with employees and clearly communicate expectations.

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