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How to support your employees during the pandemic

Revised workloads, flexible hours, psychological support—there are many ways to show employees you care. Here are three suggestions

Worried young woman using computerThe pandemic has left many employees struggling with burnout and anxiety and it’s important everyone has someone to confide in, experts say (Getty Images/JGI/Tom Grill)

Although the vaccination campaign is now underway, millions of Canadians won’t be giving up their home offices just yet. Meanwhile, others who’ve already returned to the workplace are dealing with significant pandemic-related stress. How can employers support them in the coming months?


“The first step is reminding employees about their benefits: group insurance, employee assistance program, telemedicine service, personal finance advisers, and so on,” says Catherine Gosselin, a CPA in charge of the practice of compensation at Brassard Goulet Yargeau global compensation and benefits. “It can be more challenging to communicate information in some work settings, such as factories where employees are not sitting in front of the computer, but it’s vital. You should never assume employees know what they’re entitled to. Base salary is one thing, but overall compensation is so much more nowadays.”

“Some employees are struggling with anxiety or burnout,” says Manon Poirier, a certified human resources professional and executive director of the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés. “For others, it’s the fact that their only interactions are through a screen. It’s important to make sure everyone has someone to confide in, starting with their manager. Some managers have even grown closer to their teams: knowing that an employee has kids is one thing, but seeing and hearing them in the background of a meeting brings it to a whole other level.”


The pandemic has reminded many managers of the key role that they can play in managing psychosocial risk factors in the workplace, says Poirier. “Mental-health issues have become less stigmatized in recent years and are no longer associated with one type of person,” she adds. [See The time to talk openly about mental health is right now]

Here are some ways to help:

  • Rethink the workload. “There are many reasons [absent colleagues, family obligations, fatigue, and so on] that the same tasks might take longer to complete at home versus in the office,” says Poirier. “Try breaking up the work into shorter-term objectives and avoid waiting three months or a year until a project’s completion to celebrate,” she adds. “Every milestone is an opportunity to strengthen ties that emphasize a sense of accomplishment.”
  • Acknowledge everyone’s efforts and involvement, not just the results. “This is even more critical than before due to distancing,” says Poirier. Suggested ideas include a virtual toast, a handwritten letter, a small gift, or a thank-you email copied to the boss. “However, in all cases, you need to keep in mind the recipient’s personality,” she adds. “For example, if an employee is more reserved, it might be best to avoid public recognition at a meeting.” •
  • Value your employees’ skills. “Give them more leeway if their position allows it,” says Poirier. “Recently, despite the pandemic, the most successful organizations have been those who’ve decentralized their decision-making, particularly for less critical decisions that can be made as a team.”
  • Adopt a clear work ethic. “Just because you get an email in the evening doesn’t mean you have to reply right away,” says Poirier. “Yet many employees now spend the time that they would have spent commuting in front of their computers.”

Necessary leave and flexibility must be provided, especially for those with dependants: flexible hours, for example, five days worked over six days or compressed over four. “This can be challenging for organizations with more limited operational capacity, and that is where psychological distress occurs—when people feel as if they have no wiggle room,” she says.


Businesses have been walking a financial tightrope since the start of the pandemic.

To express support and gratitude or even to assist employees in such an exceptional pandemic, gestures can be put in place, says Gosselin.

“If you can provide a benefit that can be partly or completely non-taxable based on the federal and provincials tax laws applicable, then at the end of the day, the employees will have more in their pockets for their personal cost of living for the same dollar and an employer might even save on employers contributions,” she says. “Within the framework of overall compensation, each employer must find a formula that is administratively simple, but that provides support to its employees while being fiscally efficient.” Here are a few examples:

  • “An employer can give its employee a non-cash gift or award valued at $500 or less annually,” Gosselin explains, “as long as the gift isn’t related to their performance, but to a special occasion such as a birthday or religious holiday. The gesture must not be discretionary or aim to make something tax-free that should be taxable, which would make it a ‘disguised remuneration’.” However, regardless of the cost, some gifts and awards—including gift certificates and hospitality rewards, such as employer-provided team building lunches—are considered a taxable employment benefit. An employee can also be given a non-cash award of $500 or less for every five years of service, tax-free, says Gosselin.
  • “During a virtual social event, you could reimburse a meal delivered to your employees without it being considered a taxable benefit as long as the cost doesn’t exceed $150 per person and that all required conditions set by the tax authorities are met,” says the tax specialist.
  • “Don’t reject taxable benefits altogether,” she adds. If you give, for example, an employee an allowance for cellular phone or internet services, it must be included in the employee’s income as a taxable benefit. However, “if you pay for, or reimburse the cost of an employee’s cell phone service plan or internet service at home to help carry out their employment duties, the portion used for employment purposes is not a taxable benefit,” explains the CRA. Cellular phone service shouldn’t give rise to a benefit if the plan’s cost is reasonable, if the plan is a basic plan with a fixed cost and if the employee’s personal use of the service doesn’t result in charges that are more than the basic plan cost.
  • As tax season approaches, “an employer could provide assistance to their employees in order to demystify the options available for home office expenses and explain to them what work expenses will qualify, to what extent and how each available method works. The simplified method proposed by the CRA [and RQ in Quebec] won’t necessarily end up being the optimal solution for all workers, especially tenants who can deduct part of their rent and electricity expenses,” says Gosselin.

To summarize, there’s no shortage of possibilities, and the two specialists agree on one thing: taking care of your employees is essential, because the labour shortage is still very real. “The unemployment rate is higher because people have lost their jobs,” says Poirier, “but this isn’t true in all sectors; and once the health crisis ends, recruiting talented people will remain a challenge.”


Watch this candid discussion about mental health between CPA Canada president and CEO Charles-Antoine St-Jean and KPMG chief mental health officer Denis Trottier. Learn how the corporate world is finally waking up to employee burnout and taking it seriously. And if blurring work-life lines have you burning the candle at both ends, see these 12 tips to help regain some balance.