Working Towards Recovery: Workplace Health and Wellness Guide

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The stress of the pandemic and the disruption it has had on our lives has negatively impacted the mental health of many Ottawa residents. A 2020 Ottawa Public Health report found that two out of five Ottawa residents (40%) rated their mental health and emotional well-being as ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ (vs. 9% in 2017). The same report found that half of Ottawa residents (52%) were concerned about burning out compared to 37% in March 2020*.

*Ottawa Public Health. Status of Mental Health in Ottawa During the COVID-19 Pandemic. Results of a population survey June 3 to 8, 2020. June 2020. Ottawa (ON): Ottawa Public Health 2020

It is important to keep in mind that many employees and employers have experienced changes in almost all facets of their lives including their mental health and wellness. In some cases, individuals may be struggling with substance use or declining mental health due to stressors brought on by the pandemic. If you have been struggling during this time, you are not alone. Everyone has had their own individual experience throughout the pandemic, no two situations are exactly alike.

You may be reading this guide because you are being asked to return to the workplace. Or maybe you have been working on-site throughout, but now you may interact with more people in different situations. Or maybe your work situation hasn’t changed, but your mental health has been a struggle. Much like how working arrangements differed at the beginning of the pandemic, experiences will vary for each individual and workplace.

Both the length and lack of certainty caused by the pandemic is a significant stressor for many and has many individuals feeling exhausted. The mental health of many individuals has been challenged throughout. This guide is intended to help you continue to navigate changing public health regulations and stressors in all parts of your life by providing information about what you can do to help support yourself and your loved ones.

Many people may experience uncertainty and stress interacting and working with others in the context of a pandemic. But we know what works to help protect us from COVID-19, like vaccinations, masking and physical distancing. Let’s continue to support our community with the return to pre-pandemic activities by being mindful of the following principles when interacting with friends, colleagues, and strangers. 

Kindness – Be kind to yourself and others! We have all been in the same storm, but we have been in different boats experiencing the pandemic differently. We don’t know what others have weathered to get here, just like others don’t know what you have weathered.  

Respect – Remember, we may all have different reactions to the changing circumstances regarding the pandemic. Many are feeling a mix of emotions during these uncertain times. Experiencing these different emotions is normal. Not everyone is ready to do things that we used to do before the pandemic. Everyone has different levels of comfort. Before assuming, communicate and try to understand what others may be feeling. 

Supports – Think about what has helped you cope with stress in the past. Pause and reflect on what has helped you in other difficult situations. It might be things like getting quality sleep, eating healthy foods that give you energy, connecting with nature, talking to someone you trust. It’s okay not to be okay. Reach out for help when you need it. Talk to someone you trust or reach out to community resources – many are listed in the back of this toolkit. 

Mental health and safety in the workplace are just as important as physical health and safety. Employers across all workplaces need to consider the mental well-being of staff and there are great resources to support this. The National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace provides all workplaces with guidance and best practices. Within the Standard, there are 13 factors that contribute to a mentally healthy workplace. These factors have been broken down into easy-to-understand information and videos that you can view on our haveTHATtalk webpage. We encourage both employers and employees to learn more about the factors that contribute to a healthy workplace so that we can move forward in ways that prioritize health and safety while also being psychologically healthy and safe.

This guide was created to help better understand the challenges that we are facing as individuals, but also as a community. Everyone needs to continue practicing kindness, respect, resilience, and understanding as we work towards a healthier community and economy within the context of the pandemic.

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Mental Health and Substance Use Stigma in the Workplace

Before we get into the employee and employer sections of this guide, we must first discuss the important topic of stigma. Unfortunately, some groups have experienced more stigma than others throughout the pandemic.

What is stigma? Stigma refers to negative attitudes (prejudice) and negative behaviours (discrimination) toward people. It includes having fixed ideas and judgements about people or groups of people. Individuals can experience stigma for a variety of reasons: gender, race, sexuality, age, illness, etc. Stigma can affect access to work and housing, prevent people from getting the support they need and can also prevent them from seeking health care.

It prevents people from telling the people closest to them in their life what they are going through, perhaps that they are struggling, and this takes away vital support that is needed to get help and stay well. We know that the sooner someone gets help, the better the outcome, so here are things we can do to prevent stigma in the workplace and community:

  • Use person first language. This means acknowledging someone as a person before describing personal attributes or health conditions. This respects the person’s worth and dignity, promotes help-seeking behaviour and it avoids perpetuating negative stereotypes.
  • Correct myths, rumours and stereotypes to ensure that people have the correct information and are not causing panic and fear as well as contributing to more stigma.
  • Avoid use of language that blames, shames or isolates individuals due to health conditions
  • Explore your own feelings about a topic: Do you have biases that you developed in your family, perhaps from your parents or friends?
  • Learn more from trusted websites such as the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) and the Community Addictions Peer Support Association (CAPSA).

Here are some examples of stigmatizing versus respectful person first language:

Stigmatizing vs. respectful person first language
They’re depressed They have depression / are living with depression
The mentally ill People with mental illness
Commit/committed suicide Died by suicide/ death by suicide/ lost their life to suicide

People with a substance use disorder

People with living experience of a substance use disorder

Relapse, Lapse, Slip, used again

Recurrence of substance use

Recurrence of substance use disorder symptoms

COVID-19 infected people

Person/people with COVID-19

Person who tested positive for the virus

Infect/Infecting Transmit virus

Being aware of how our words affect others may seem small, but it has a large impact. It takes time to break old speech patterns but the benefits of using non-stigmatizing language are worth the effort. Using respectful, non-judgmental language demonstrates an understanding of others’ reality, even if you haven’t experienced it.

For more information on reducing stigma, please check out this video on mental health stigma and this video on reducing stigma towards addiction and substance use.

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Mental Health and Substance Use
It’s ok to not be ok. Reach out for help when you need it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a difficult time. It is normal to feel stressed and worried but please know that there is help available.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of courage. In fact, seeking support when you need it will benefit all aspects of your life including both your physical and mental health.

For a complete list of mental health and substance use resources visit

Crisis Support:

At some point, you may find yourself or a colleague/employee in crisis. For immediate support please call the Distress Centre of Ottawa and Region at 613-238-3311 for services in English or French or Tel-Aide Outaouais at 613-741-6433 for services in French. These phone lines are your connection to mental health support and resources 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mental Health and Substance Use Counselling and System Navigation Portals:

AccessMHA makes it easy to find mental health and/or substance use support, services, and care. They work with you to refer you to the services you need from a network of partner organizations, all while supporting you through the process.

1Call1Click matches children, youth and families with the right mental health and substance use services for them and assists in making appointments.

Short Term Counselling (Mental Health and Substance Use):

Counselling Connect provides quick access to free phone or video counselling sessions. This service is for children, youth, adults and families in Ottawa and the surrounding area.

The Walk-in Counselling Clinic at 613-755-2277 offers free counselling sessions in multiple languages.

Substance Use Recovery Support:

Breaking Free Online (BFO) is a free virtual care tool for those experiencing challenges with substance use and is available for all Ontarians ages 16 and up. To create an account, employees can enter the Ottawa Public Health service code “ottawaph21.” For those employers who are interested in implementing the care tool within their workplaces, you can learn more about the platform by connecting with Breaking Free staff, who will provide you with a service code and access to the Breaking Free Operational Toolkit.

Rideauwood Addiction and Family Services focus on substance use, behavioural addictions and mental health for youth and young adults, adults and parents and families. Contact Rideauwood at 613-724-4881.

Le Cap provides mental health and addictions services for Francophone individuals and families in Ontario. Contact le Cap at 613-789-2240. Crisis support line is 1-877-377-7775.

Suicide Prevention Training:

LivingWorks Start is a 90-minute online suicide prevention training. It teaches participants to recognize when someone is having thoughts of suicide and connect them to help and support. For more information and to register yourself or your employees for this training, please visit the LivingWorks website.

Websites to help support psychological health and safety in the workplace 

Conversation guides

Approaching an employee in a way that is supportive and validating can help them through a difficult time. Remember that kindness, respect, resilience and understanding should be the foundations of all interactions with employees.  Below you will find language that can be used to guide you in having supportive conversations with employees about their concerns, fears, or anxious feeling as you welcome them back to the workplace or begin to resume pre-pandemic levels of business. Here are some things you can say and do to support staff through a difficult conversation:

  1. “I hear…” restate what you’ve heard them expressing
    • i.e. “I hear you saying that you haven’t been sleeping well and have concerns about upcoming changes in the workplace” 
  2. Validate: acknowledge what you have heard them express and that their thoughts and feelings are valid.
    • i.e. “That must be very tough for you. It’s a very challenging time for sure.”
  3. “I’m concerned…” express your concerns about the impact to the workplace, the individual, etc. 
    • i.e. “I’m concerned about your well-being and want to ensure you feel well enough to continue working.” 
  4. “What do you need…. / How can I help?” ask what they need to feel better/safe/comfortable through the transition. 
    • i.e. “What do you think would help you feel better (comfortable and safe) at work?”
  5. Remind them of resources and/or safety measures that are in place, provide tips on coping 
    • i.e. Refer to mental health and substance use resources and/or Employee and Family Assistance Program (EFAP), if appropriate. 

Follow-up with the employee after having an initial conversation. You can use the same strategies in the above steps to continue the conversation. Check out the Workplace Strategies for Mental Health website for more tips on how to have a supportive conversation.

Remember that in order to support others, you need to be taking care of your own mental health as well. Check out the employee section of this toolkit for some tips.

COVID-19 prevention in the workplace

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