Mental health supports for returning to the workplace

The first in a series focusing on stay at work supports.

The issue

The pandemic has taken a huge toll on our mental health. The added impact of work from home expectations, homeschooling, caregiving, academic and administrative restructuring, budget cuts, layoffs, change, uncertainty and grief has been overwhelming for many.    

For some, the feelings of anxiety and depression that emerged may start to resolve as routines resume, social activities and connections renew, and the fear associated with these activities dissipates. Others will face new or worse mental health issues that persist or appear for months to come. It will take quite some time before we truly understand the magnitude these stressors have had on our mental health. 

The university has a number of services to support faculty and staff through difficult transitions while staying at work, either full-time or on modified hours. It is helpful for staff to understand the programs and services that are available while dealing with challenging situations.   

Fluctuations in mental health are normal, whether due to a stressful set of new circumstances or a condition that requires medication and lifelong management. In Canada:

  • 1 in 5 are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or posttraumatic stress disorder1
  • 68% who reported a mental health issue noted that their mental health has worsened since the pandemic1
  • Only 23% of workers feel comfortable talking to their employer about mental illness2

Discussing mental health as it pertains to the workplace can be a difficult subject—knowing how much to share, when, and with whom. The answer to this will be unique to each individual, their circumstance and the relationship they have with their supervisor and colleagues. The reality is that despite efforts to the contrary, there remains a significant stigma associated with mental health.

It is also important to understand the difference in leave types and their intended purpose, for example, navigating how and when to use a sick day, a vacation day, illness leave and whether the staff member will need to be away from work or if they can access appropriate supports while at work. We will touch on this further in future articles, but questions can always be directed to with the supervisor or HR Service Partner for clarity. 

The expectation

The university strives to foster psychologically healthy and safe work environments. In a psychologically healthy environment, there’s an expectation that healthy relationships are maintained which allow for honest and transparent conversations between faculty/staff and managers/supervisors. As such, having a proactive conversation when someone is struggling at work could allow for temporary modifications to keep them at work, healthy and safe. This is true for a broken leg, a concussion, or a period of diagnosed anxiety—regardless of the cause, there are supports available. While the staff member does not need to disclose a diagnosis, they are responsible for sharing what tasks they struggle with and what workplace supports they need.

If there are concerns about speaking with a manager directly, connect with EFAP, the HR Service Partner or the appropriate association for help. 

Managers and supervisors are reminded of their responsibility to check in with and be aware of employees that may be struggling. This is part of the duty to inquire, and may lead to a temporary or permanent accommodation. Understanding a staff member’s struggles empowers the supervisor to offer modifications that could help the staff member to continue to thrive at work. Research supports that appropriate work can be rehabilitative in nature. Sharing these supports with the employee helps contribute to a psychologically safe workplace by creating an open dialogue about struggles and supports. Initiating a caring conversation can be intimidating at times, the Workplace Advice Line can assist managers and supervisors to navigate these discussions. 

The tools

The university offers a wide range of proactive supports for staff members to individually manage their mental health and for managers to assist in supporting them.

Faculty and staff

University of Alberta Employee and Family Assistance Program - counseling and other supportive services. 

E-Courses - register with the university’s EFAP and gain access to self-paced, self directed e-learning opportunities of stress, resilience, workplace change, mood and more.

Wellbeing Through Change - access resources to help faculty and staff maintain their wellbeing through ongoing change

Facing Facts - read about the university’s campaign to address mental health/illness stigma in the workplace.

Psychological Health and Safety - staff and faculty page which contains information, resources and an e-learning opportunity. 


University of Alberta Employee and Family Assistance Program - counseling and other supportive services.

Preparing for Supportive Conversations - planning and preparing for difficult conversations is crucial for a positive result.

Workplace Advice Line - knowing how or when to address concerns in the workplace can be daunting.  The university’s EFAP can support leaders in initiating these discussions with empathy and compassion. 

Guide for Assisting a Colleague in Distress - helps leaders determine how best to support someone in distress.  

Creating Psychologically Safe Workplaces - U of A leaders information and resources. 

Facing Facts - read about the university’s campaign to address mental health/illness stigma in the workplace with leaders specific information sheets.

Our next article will be on stay at work and preventative supports.

Statistics Canada, Survey on COVID-19 and Mental Health, September - December 2020 
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, Mental Health in the Canadian Workplace