Supporting the university during times of crisis

No one would dispute that 2020 has been a difficult and challenging year for our university. In January 2020, our community and the world faced an incredible loss during the crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in Iran on January 8, 2020. Ten members of the University of Alberta community and three members of their families were among the 176 people killed in the devastating plane crash. They were professors and students, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers. Some were accomplished researchers; some were just embarking on promising careers. All were immediately mourned and deeply missed.

In collaboration with the Office of the Dean of Students, Human Resources quickly mobilized to provide grief services to our faculties, their staff and students, and members of the affected families. The profound loss that our community felt during that time required 24/7 support from a team of grief counsellors from Homewood Health, provider of our employee, graduate student and postdoctoral fellow family assistance programs. While other events since have turned our focus, we are still saddened by the unimaginable loss experienced that January day.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in March 2020, the attention of our HRS teams quickly turned to supporting the university community through a world-wide health crisis.

The university’s crisis management system was enacted in response to the pandemic, and our HRS team served on the Crisis Management Team, the Public Health Response Team and several of their working groups, including:

  • the infrastructure and safety measures group
  • the communications working group
  • the faculty and staff working group
  • the research impacts working group

“Our immediate priority was to protect the health and safety of our community” says Wayne Patterson, Associate Vice-President, Health Safety and Environment.

Switching to remote work and online classroom study as quickly as possible in response to public health orders was our first task and quickly required the development and implementation of new guidelines, directives and measures to ensure our faculty, staff and students could work safely and productively.  

Wayne Patterson, Associate Vice-President, Health Safety and Environment

In the more than eight months since the pandemic started, HR has continued to support our employees, leaders and their families with advice, guidance, resources and tools to ensure that the majority of staff can work remotely while essential services are maintained on our campuses.

Our teams have:

  • Launched dozens of new web resources for faculty, staff and leaders with advice and information about working during a pandemic
  • Developed new systems to support COVID pay continuance, illness leave and modified duties when working from home
  • Developed a comprehensive guide to remote working
  • Provided ongoing support to managers and supervisors
  • Negotiated agreements with our faculty and staff associations to facilitate temporary layoffs, support performance evaluation, extend probation and address other issues as required
  • Provided support to employees with immigration and travel challenges
  • Issued thousands of records of employment for staff and students to permit their application for federal COVID relief payments.
  • Transitioned HR service delivery processes and functions to enable fast and reliable online service for our clients
  • Provided advice about conducting remote interviews
  • Offered constant support to supervisors for managing remote work

To ensure our employees have access to the support they need, we negotiated our Employee and Family Assistance Program contract to include quality-assurance mechanisms to monitor service and consistency. We also secured Masters and PhD-level psychologists for our counselling service to provide better support to faculty and staff.

Supporting Mental Health during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced our faculty and staff to face enormous change this year, requiring them to navigate an onslaught of news, policies and precautions; manage homeschooling and child care; balance work and home as our two environments collided; become socially isolated; communicate primarily through a screen; experience nervous curiosity about the university restructure; face concern about budget cuts; and figure out a suitable home office setup. The circumstances have left many of them feeling tired and anxious. Many leaders have identified their own challenges, and flagged mental health concerns about their teams.

To mitigate the harmful impacts of the pandemic and other institutional changes on the mental wellbeing of our employees, our attention quickly turned to offering additional mental health support and services. Our focus during all of the changes impacting faculty and staff has been to maximize awareness of, and access to, mental health resources. We increased workshops and articles on the importance of self care, resilience, managing stress and taking control of mood. We also focused on leadership development programming to support leaders, managers and supervisors to develop resiliency, compassion, and clear communication within their teams. We offered specific events about building resilience, managing change and stress, and calming your mind. We produced and published articles about supporting employees through fear, anxiety and stress, maintaining health while working remotely, showing appreciation remotely and mental health support. We focused on supporting mental health and connecting individuals to services and using tools like “Take That Step,” a campaign to normalize the conversation about reaching out for help.

Since April 2020, HR has regularly offered lunch and learn sessions specific to mental health, mindfulness and resilience during COVID-19. In addition, a great deal of effort has been focused on communicating available e-courses on stress, resilience and mood available through the EFAP a well as numerous tips and articles on topics such as Maintaining Health and Wellbeing, Tips for Working Remotely and Staying Healthy, How to Show Kindness and Appreciation from Afar, Recognition While Working Remotely, Wellness Together Canada and Mental Health Support and Self-Care Check-ins.

Helping leaders, faculty and staff stay connected while working remotely

How do we keep faculty and staff engaged during a pandemic, when more than half our faculty and staff are working remotely? Our people are more isolated than ever, and some are feeling disconnected from their workplace, colleagues and leaders. Here are some ways we asked leaders to model behaviour in the new remote working environment:

  1. Be flexible with those who have family responsibilities
  2. Be empathetic in conversations and when sharing news
  3. Rethink the U of A experience
  4. Consider how crisis provides opportunities for personal and professional growth
  5. Create virtual social connection opportunities
  6. Recognize contributions
  7. View work with a psychologically safe lens
  8. Prioritize people