• Lee-Baggley, D. and Howatt, B. (2023). Employees’ perceived psychological health and safety experience during COVID-19 through an inclusion lens. Canadian Standards Association, Toronto, ON.

Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of supporting employees’ psychological well-being. In a recent research study, we examined employers’ responses to the pandemic and actions taken to support employees’ mental health. The current study builds upon the previous research report that evaluated the employer perspective by evaluating the employees’ perspectives. We examined employees’ experiences in the workplace using a diversity and inclusion lens. This employee-focused research offers insights into what employees believe their employers are doing well and what can be improved in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. By examining employer perspectives alongside employee experiences, we identified discrepancies and generated actionable recommendations for employers to improve psychological health and safety in the workplace. CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/ BNQ 9700-803/2013 (R2022) highlights the importance of continuously engaging employees to obtain their insights and feedback on the effectiveness of programs and policies intended to protect and support their mental health. Thus, understanding the employee experience is critical to facilitating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace.

Method and Results

This study included a literature review and an online survey distributed to Canadian employees to capture their insights on available workplace resources for psychological health and safety. We divided these workplace supports into employee-level and system-level. Employee-level supports are services directed to employees, typically after challenges have emerged. These supports are typically designed for each employee to access at their discretion. System-level supports are designed to create workplaces that mitigate risk factors and promote protective factors in support of mental health, consistent with CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 (R2022). System-level supports can pre-empt issues and positively impact all workers.

This online survey involved a mixed-method design. The survey asked a diverse sample of the Canadian workforce to complete a series of quantitative and qualitative questions to understand their experiences with workplace mental health support during and following the COVID-19 pandemic. Our final sample consisted of 1,413 Canadian employees. We observed many similarities between employer and employee top concerns regarding psychosocial factors and hazards during the pandemic. However, the need for engagement was a consistent theme: employees felt their employers often did not understand their needs and did not engage or communicate with them directly. This result indicates that communication and engagement with employees are as important as (or potentially more important than) policies and programs. This study successfully recruited a participant sample that spanned several visible and invisible forms of diversity. We included a measure of inclusivity, which comprised aspects of belonging, feeling valued, and respected. Perceived inclusivity was associated with many workplace factors, including disability leaves and experiences with harassment. Employees who reported low levels of inclusivity also reported more barriers to accessing services despite a desire to use these services. Employers must recognize that all policies and programs are not equally available or experienced in the same way across employees. Engagement with employees spanning diversity and inclusion is critical to ensuring that programs and policies are available and impactful for all employees.

Recommendations and Conclusions

Psychological health and safety can be achieved when employees and employers work collaboratively. Employees can act to promote their mental health, and employers can mitigate the impact of negative (e.g., draining) psychosocial factors that pose risks to mental health. This study highlighted the importance of considering both employee- and system-level supports. Employers can broaden how they address psychological health and safety in the workplace and should not solely depend on employees to access employee-level supports to improve well-being. System-level supports can improve the experience for all employees by preventing challenges and providing a supportive environment for those experiencing problems. Inclusivity impacts many workplace factors, from disability leaves to barriers in accessing support. This finding highlights the need to focus on inclusivity and to recognize the many visible and invisible forms of diversity.

CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 (R2022) highlights the importance of continual improvement to practices and policies in the workplace. A Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) approach is critical to support ongoing and positive workplace mental health. Both the employer and employee studies noted significant gaps in adopting and practicing a PDCA approach, especially regarding the “C” (checking) and the “A” (acting or adjusting). The “checking” includes engagement with employees to ensure that their voices are heard and understood. This study provides an example outlining how employers may use metrics to better understand whether their mental health initiatives are impacting psychological health and safety as intended and how to engage in continuous improvement. Finally, this study summarizes employer actions to protect employees, positively influence the employee experience, mitigate mental harm, and promote mental health.