Sick leave, accommodation, mental-health considerations for a post-pandemic return to work

As provincial governments start to lay out their plans for slowly reopening the economy, employers have a unique return-to-work scenario to handle.

Appropriate sick leave and accommodation policies will be key pieces of the new normal, said Alex Boucher, principal and total health management leader at Mercer Canada, during a webinar on Friday.

A second and possibly further waves of the pandemic are expected, so employers will need to have plans in place for situations where employees feel ill or have virus-like symptoms, he said. These include addressing questions around how long employees should isolate before it’s safe to return to work, whether asymptomatic employees who’ve come into contact with a coronavirus case should isolate and how long employees are paid or unpaid on virus-related sick leaves. Employers may also be required to consider how to handle an employee who lives with a frontline health-care worker and has the potential to be repeatedly exposed to the virus.

Read: A refresher on Canada’s leave policies as coronavirus escalates

Older employees and those with chronic conditions may be particularly concerned about returning to work, noted Boucher, as well as staffers caring for children or an elderly or at-risk family member. “If you don’t have an accommodation practice with clear steps to address accommodation fairly, investigate the situation, dictate timelines and support employees — it’s going to be more important now than it ever has been.”

Going forward, companies will also have to think more carefully about workplace health and safety policies, he added. If those plans include implementing screening or monitoring employees for the virus, employers will have to be aware of the rules that govern the management and collection of medical information and the responsibilities they assume by making decisions for employees based on that information.

Exposure-management plans will also be necessary for a post-lockdown return to work, noted Boucher. “There are likely to be pockets of outbreaks that will continue until the vaccine has been widely distributed across the country. If your workplace or employees are exposed . . . what is your communication [plan]? What is your exposure management? How will you contain them and how can you continue to operate? The time to review and revisit policies and practices is now.”

Read: Considerations around employee safety, privacy, leave during the coronavirus crisis

Employers will also have to consider more than just their physical workspaces. People returning to work will be facing a variety of new stressors and that’s expected to have an impact on the benefits plan. “Bringing people back into a new environment in uncertain times is an additional stressor,” he said. “As a result, it comes with a duty of care. You have to create a healthy workplace.”

While employee mental-health expenses typically make up three per cent of an employer’s payroll, that’s expected to grow substantially this year, said Suresh Moorthy, national product leader at Mercer Canada, also speaking during the webinar. “Based on some of the ideas we’ve seen and some of the modelling we’ve done so far, we expect that [number] to rise by 10 to 15 per cent.”

Increased costs can come from additional time away from the office, longer durations of disability leave, the increased use of paramedical practitioners and different types of medications, he noted. “Year over year, we’re actually seeing an increasing drug usage for depression and anxiety.”

Read: Webinar: Coronavirus and workplace mental health

The best way employers can prepare is by making sure employees can address their mental-health concerns preventatively with access to resources and advanced care if necessary. Boucher also suggested that companies consider manager training on early warning signs of mental-health challenges, building empathy skills and, for teams that continue some form of remote work, remote management skills.

“This situation has brought to light that prevention, health, being well and having those all those tools for access to medical care and access to mental-health supports and financial well-being are important,” he said. “That will continue into the future. It’s essential that well-being and prevention is part of your future strategic planning.”