Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace: Employer Practices in Response to COVID-19


Executive Summary

Introduction

With the onset of COVID-19 and its impact on the workplace and mental health, employee psychological health and safety became a topic of concern for leaders across all sectors and types of employers. Psychological health and safety in the workplace requires employers to intentionally take action to mitigate employee risk for mental harm and to promote and support employee mental health. CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 (R2018), Psychological health and safety in the workplace – Prevention, promotion, and guidance to staged implementation (CAN/CSA-Z1003) was created to guide employers in designing and implementing policies, programs, and management systems to facilitate psychologically safe and healthy workplaces.

The purpose of this research project was to better understand the factors and hazards associated with psychological health and safety in the workplace as it pertains to the COVID-19 pandemic and to identify leading practices, innovative approaches, and lessons learned during the pandemic. This information may help employers better respond to employee needs as the pandemic progresses as well as to other potential future events that dramatically impact the workplace.

Method and Results

The study involved a literature review and environmental scan as well as an online survey for people who play an active role in their organization’s mental health strategy or psychological health and safety management systems. Ethical approval for this research study was obtained from the Institutional Research Ethics Board at Saint Mary’s University.

The study provided insight into the psychosocial factors and hazards associated with psychological health and safety in the workplace that were top of mind for employers in the pandemic. It also highlighted employers’ practices, innovative approaches, and lessons learned in supporting workplace mental health during the pandemic. Respondents highlighted the importance of employee engagement, listening to employees, inclusion, and respecting the diversity of experiences and needs in the pandemic. Respondents also recognized that investing in psychological health and safety not only benefits employees but also employers.

The results also revealed apparent gaps in employer focus on continuous improvement and program evaluation. Many employers focus mainly on the Plan (P) and Do (D) of the Plan – Do – Check – Act (PDCA) framework when facilitating workplace mental health initiatives without checking/evaluating (C) and adjusting (A) their efforts. Continuous improvement is imperative for effective psychological health and safety in the workplace, yet many employers do not know the impact of their policies and programs because of gaps in measurement, auditing, program evaluation, and observation.

Recommendations and Conclusion

The study provides insights into gaps and needs in employers’ efforts to address psychological health and safety in the pandemic and beyond. For example, many changes brought by the pandemic, such as remote work, are likely to be common in the future. Furthermore, many employers have some gaps or perhaps a lack of focus on continuous improvement regarding initiatives for psychological health and safety. Additional support and guidance on continuous improvement, corrective action, and program evaluation is clearly needed.

Past studies consistently indicated negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health and well-being. However, some found that addressing psychosocial factors can mitigate the pandemic’s impact on these hazards. This study revealed that the pandemic appears to have shone a light on the role employers play in facilitating workplace mental health. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the recognition that psychological health and safety can benefit all employees and employers. During the pandemic, “mental health” became everyone’s domain, not just of those with pre-existing mental health problems or illnesses or individuals identified as being “at risk” of a mental health problem or illness. CAN/CSA-Z1003 is one resource to assist employers in guiding a systematic effort toward psychological health and safety. Investing in psychological health and safety can proactively prepare organizations to deal with workplace mental health to reduce mental harm and promote employee mental health, in response to the pandemic or for potential future workplace events.