While the dawn of 2022 brings hope of the coronavirus pandemic becoming endemic, the year ahead is also filled with many unknowns for both employers and employees to navigate.

Many organizations, including the City of Toronto, are planning on bringing white-collar staff back to the office after some spent nearly two years working from home. While a date of Jan. 4 was announced for the next phase of its return-to-office plans the City had to delay the planned return due to the Omicron variant in mid-December 2021. During these ongoing tumultuous times, employers are prioritizing employees’ mental-health support this year and beyond.

While some employers have only recently started considering a shift to more remote working in the long term, the City was already well into planning a permanent hybrid work model for its approximately 14,500 white-collar workers pre-pandemic. Now, it’s looking ahead to a return to the office later this year.

Read: City of Toronto delaying return-to-office plans due to Omicron variant

“As employees who had been working remotely since March 2020 begin returning to offices on a more regular basis in 2022, we anticipate some may feel anxious about this change,” said Omo Akintan, the City’s chief people officer, in an email interview with Benefits Canada in late November 2021. “The City’s slow and gradual approach to its return-to-office plan aims to help address this. We’ll also continue to listen to our employees, through pulse surveys and more informal feedback, to ensure employees receive the resources and support they need.”

Since a global pandemic was first declared in March 2020, the City has been finding ways to support employee mental health during the uncertainty. It continued to offer an employee assistance program and built on the foundation set by the adoption of a psychological health in the workplace policy back in 2014. During the pandemic, the organization also doubled its psychological benefits from $500 per year to $1,000. It also launched a virtual drop-in education series for staff called “Keeping Well” and rolled out a webpage featuring mental-health resources for employees and their families.

Read: City of Toronto pivoting to permanent hybrid work model

Additionally, the City created and enhanced coronavirus-specific lieu time for staff, in recognition of the significant workload demands that employees are facing during the ongoing pandemic. It also provided recommendations for senior leadership to lead by example in managing the workday, including limiting the amount of emails and phone calls sent to employees during regular work hours, scheduling lunch hours and encouraging employees to take breaks from video calls.

“The City has offered mental-health supports and services to its employees even in our pre-COVID-19 world, but the pandemic has certainly pushed the issues of mental health, well-being and, in particular, work-life balance to the forefront for us and many other employers across the country,” said Akintan. “In order to attract and retain top talent, employers need to prioritize these values and the City will work to ensure that its employees always have the resources and support they need.”

Katherine Coons, a national workplace mental-health specialist at the Canadian Mental Health Association, welcomes the increased resources and support for employee mental health these days. “We know that employees are struggling, but we also know there has been increased conversations around mental health that put it in under the spotlight — [a workplace mental-health strategy is] no longer a nice to have, but a need to have for organizations.”

Read: How to manage the employee mental-health tsunami

The City understands the need to continue to offer support as employees trudge through the second coronavirus-era winter. After a successful launch last year during January and February, the City has made its “Hope: A Path to Wellness” campaign — with events such as company-wide mental-health drop-in sessions — an annual event as this time of year can be “particularly difficult for mental health,” said Akintan.

Peter Smith, scientific co-director and a senior scientist at the Institute for Work & Health, says employers looking to help hybrid, in-person and remote workers through another uncertain year should continue to focus on mental health even after the pandemic ends. “Not in the last 100 years have we experienced a pandemic of this magnitude, so we don’t really know what the consequences are going to be down the line of people having elevated levels of anxiety and depression for such a long period of time. Usually, for mental health and stress, it follows a cyclical nature, there’s periods of stress, periods of not stress, periods of stress, periods of not stress — but with COVID, we’ve had really sustained periods of stress.”

The past 22 months (and counting) has felt like a stress-filled marathon for many, he notes, and the long-term emotional toll of living through a global pandemic is something employers will have to keep an eye on in the post-pandemic years yet to come. “Different people will cope in different ways and how that’ll play out when people return to the workplace is something we have yet to fully understand . . . It’s not one size fits all. different things work for different people. . . . [Employers] can’t just have mindfulness class and think the job is done.”

Read: Mental health declining for 23% of employees since start of pandemic: survey