SASKATOON -- With pandemic restrictions lifted in Saskatchewan, many people are starting to return to the workplace — a process mental health experts say should be done in a clear and flexible way.

“I think we just have to kind of throw out our former ideas about what the workplace looks like and be open to doing things in new and different ways that are supportive of our staff and that are supportive of our business,” said Faith Bodnar, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Saskatoon.

Bodnar said the last year and a half has brought on a lot of anxiety and concern for not only people’s own health but the health of their family, friends and co-workers.

She said the constant change in restrictions and information has also affected people’s wellbeing and anxiety levels.

“It’s a very fluid, evolving situation and that creates uncertainty,” Bodnar said.

According to the LifeWorks’ monthly Mental Health Index, many Canadians are still uncertain of what to expect when they return to the workplace, contributing to a decline in their mental health.

The report found that 25 per cent of Canadians surveyed are “unclear” of their employer’s plan to returning to the workplace, while another 12 per cent don’t believe their employer has a plan.

These respondents also reported the lowest mental health scores when compared to employees who said their employer has already communicated a “clear” return-to-the workplace strategy.

Bodnar said it is important for employers to be aware that people have different comfort levels and to collaborate with employees on back-to-work plans.

“I would encourage employers to do is be open, be transparent about what your workplace and your business needs are, but allow people to find their safe place within that, and if that means being able to wear masks, without any concerns that people should be able to do that,” she said.

Federated Co-operatives Limited, which has 3,200 employees across western Canada, is taking a gradual approach to allowing employees back into its offices, according to Cameron Zimmer, the company’s communications and public relations manager.

“Starting right now, so in the summer, employees can come back to the office if it works for them and their roles, but we’re not seeing a whole lot of people do that — maybe a quarter less of our employees who work from the office. And then we’re gradually sort of relaxing some of the restrictions that we’ve had in place because of COVID,” he said, adding that 1,200 of their employees work in offices.

Zimmer said people’s mental health is the main reason for the gradual approach, as they’ve learned from the early stages of the pandemic how long it took people to adjust to working from home.

“It took people, you know, a while sometimes to catch up and to figure out what life looked like for them, what their work life looked like and we know it’s the same, and we’ve heard that from our employees coming back.”

Zimmer said in October, the company will be moving to a long-term flexible work arrangement for people who are eligible.

“We’re going to each create a plan with our supervisors, a one-on-one plan of what works best for us as a business and what works best for each employee. It’ll probably look different for each person, but I know a lot of people are looking forward to that,” he said.

“We’ve given as much time and space as we can, but we’re also wanting to be really transparent and open and give people a clear picture as much as we can of what work is going to look like come

October once we hopefully are past the pandemic.”

Zimmer said they will continue to check in with employees throughout the year to see if there needs to be change as the COVID-19 situation develops.

Terri Peterson, practice leader and counsellor at the Student Wellness Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, said there are many things employees can do to manage anxiety they have about returning to work.

“Uncertainty creates activation in our system. It’s just now we are, a bit of a threat right, like what’s happening here in my life or other people’s lives? And so then we have to do more support for our nervous systems, our mental well-being. Those self-care activities, the ways that we already kind of bring our stress cycle down becomes even more important.”

Peterson said for some people that might look like getting extra sleep, going for a run, doing breathing work or connecting with loved ones.