Employees don’t usually meditate together during work hours, but these aren’t usual times.

Every month, the team at Wattpad gathers (virtually, for now) and is guided through a meditation class to help calm frayed nerves amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Abby Yew, the multi-platform entertainment company’s head of marketing, says she started taking sound-bath and meditation classes led by Toronto-based wellness company Pause + Expand to feel more centred during the pandemic. She then launched monthly meditation sessions for staff last fall after Wattpad’s annual employee engagement survey found many employees were feeling disconnected and isolated during the coronavirus crisis.

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“I thought, ‘What is something I could do for the team that could help build those feelings of connection?'” says Yew. “[The meditation classes] create a safe space for vulnerability and opportunity to share more personal concerns and challenges and even celebration.”

Employees at Wattpad, which has offices in Toronto and Halifax, are fairly progressive and open to the idea of meditation, says Yew, though she acknowledges the idea of meditating with colleagues can feel a bit intimidating at first. To assuage any fears, she’s often the first to offer up any personal information to loosen things up. Once a meditation session begins, cameras are turned off and earbuds are put in to help staff fully tune in to the sounds and prompts of the session.

The sessions by Pause + Expand, which was co-founded by a former Wattpad staffer, are specifically designed for corporate clients, which has also included the University Health Network Foundation. “Everyone really embraced the journey of this and [we’re] really seeing a lot of positive outcomes,” says Yew.

Since the global pandemic was first declared, Wattpad has put a focus on supporting employee emotional wellness and mental health by enforcing office hours so workers can disconnect after hours, adding more personal days and launching no-meeting Fridays and summer hours.

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

Employees have needed support these days, with almost a quarter (23 per cent) of Canadian workers saying their mental health has declined since the start of the pandemic, according to a recent survey by LifeWorks Inc. In particular, this time of year can feel challenging for many, says Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Toronto. In fact, today — the third Monday of January — has become known as the most depressing day of the year, a.k.a. Blue Monday.

While the CAMH notes there’s no scientific evidence backing up the idea that Blue Monday is more depressing than any other date, today is still an opportunity for employers to take a deeper look at how they can support employees through yet another tumultuous year. “Blue Monday is a great opportunity to engage in the continuing dialogue and conversation about mental health,” says Kamkar. “We’ve seen throughout the pandemic that this is not only a physical health issue, but it’s also a mental-health issue as well.”

Read: Canadian workers describing burnout as high, extreme: survey

Benefits like access to meditation and yoga classes, virtual mental-health apps and coverage for therapists provide a range of ways to help employees address emotional wellness and mental-health issues, notes Kamkar. Beyond benefits offerings, employers can offer flexibility and empathy to help employees get through the second pandemic-era winter. “We know empathy in the workplace is also very important. Empathy in the workplace starts with active listening skills, good listening skills, paying attention to signs of overwork and signs of burnout.”

Burnout has emerged as a key issue for employers, with a whopping 84 per cent of Canadian workers saying they’ve felt burned out during the pandemic, causing at least 20 per cent to seek new jobs, according to a November 2021 survey by human resources software company Ceridian HCM Inc. While employers will have no control over many stressful events in 2022 so far, such as the rise of new variants and in-person school closures, being empathetic, flexible and open can go a long way, says Kamkar.

Offering monthly mediation classes to Wattpad employees is just one more tool to help workers get through this time of year, says Yew, adding that supporting employee mental health “is not a nice to have anymore — it’s a must-have.”

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