Blog - Cambridge Chamber of Commerce

The pandemic has created new opportunities for many workplaces.

 

The terms ‘hybrid’ and ‘flexible’ have become commonplace as companies and businesses formulate plans for their staff to return to a work environment that’s going to be far different than the one many left when the pandemic first struck in March of last year.

But that return won’t come without its challenges.

 

“We’re seeing a ton of anxiety out there right now as more and more employers start thinking of having people come back to the office,” says Frank Newman, who operates Newman HR. 

 

A survey conducted by KMPG Canada in the spring as vaccinations began to ramp up showed that 81% of Canadian workers were worried their employers and managers were not equipped to handle a return to work properly, and nearly two thirds of those surveyed wanted to go back to their workplaces but COVID-19 remained their core reason for reluctance. In fact, 68% said that working alongside colleagues who may be sick or asymptomatic was a top concern.

 

People have gotten very comfortable and generally quite productive working at home,” says Frank, adding the comforts of home and no commuting have become big draws for many. “I would say people are 90% to 95% as productive as they were working in the office. But clearly, we’re missing some of those creative exchange of ideas that come from sitting next to someone or from random conversations.”

 

In effort to quell the concerns of returning employees, he has been recommending to clients they create an open dialogue with their team to identify their worries or fears.

 

“It’s a little like when an employee returns from a maternity or parental leave. We just assume everything is the same but what we don’t realize is that they have undergone a bit of profound psychological change and I think we kind of had that experience working at home,” says Frank. “Companies have to try and understand what might have happened in employees’ lives while they were away. Some of us may have had loss and some of us may have had catastrophic things happen.”

 

Therefore, he says employers need to create or enhance their Employee Assistance Plans, especially around access to counselling, financial or legal supports – not just health, RRSPs and dental benefits. 

 

“I think more companies have recognized how stressed people have been,” says Frank, noting some employees may be reluctant to access these supports fearing word may spread in the workplace. “These programs are run with the highest sense of ethics in place in terms that nothing gets shared, even with your HR department. There shouldn’t be any fear about utilizing an EAP program if you have one.”

 

As well, he says vaccination policies are a huge concern and appear to be ‘all over the map’ in some workplaces and stressed that whatever stance a company takes regarding its own policy, it should be clearly defined for the employees.

 

“You want to make sure you’re talking about why you’re doing a policy, regardless of what it is because people need to know,” says Frank. “We want to keep people feeling safe at work.”

 

He says optimism appears high right now regarding bringing workers back and expects to see even more people return starting in January.

 

“I’ve got clients in virtually every sector. And the most challenging time right now is in the restaurant and food services industry,” says Frank, explaining vaccination passports and the fact fewer people have been dining out are continuing factors hitting this industry hard.

 

Also, he says workplaces with an office and a production/manufacturing component also may see the natural divide between the two widen since the office workers likely were allowed to work from home during the pandemic.

 

“Companies have to be thoughtful about how they show appreciation to those people who’ve been at the workplace every day,” he says, adding celebrating the return of employees in a positive way would also be beneficial. “I like the idea of giving something tangible, like a gift card perhaps.”

 

Frank says connections must be cultivated as people return to their offices.

 

“What we’ve learned from this whole process is that finding ways to connect with people is so important,” he says.

 

For more information, visit Newman Human Resources or contact Frank Newman at 519.362.8352.

 

Things for employers to consider as outlined by the Harvard Business Review:

 

Do:  

  • Ask - anonymously, if necessary – how people are feeling about returning to the office so you can respond directly to their concerns

  • Allow people to experiment with different ways of working so the shift to in-person or hybrid work doesn’t feel sudden. 

  • Continue to be compassionate — to your team members, and to yourself.

 

Don’t:  

  • Assume people are going to tell you that they’re feeling anxious

  • Neglect to make clear why in-person or hybrid work is beneficial to employees (not just to the company).

  • Make promises you can’t keep, such as assuring people their careers won’t be impacted by working from home or that they can do so indefinitely.

 

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Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and Ontario Chamber Releases

“Mental Wellness in the Workplace: A Playbook for Employers”

 

While concerns around workplace mental health predates the pandemic, COVID-19 has, without question, exacerbated the problem. Although most businesses recognize the importance of investing in mental health, few have put a formal strategy in place, creating a mental health action gap.

 

With the support from Sun Life, the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce and Ontario Chamber of Commerce (OCC) released resources to help them close the gap: Mental Wellness in the Workplace: A Playbook for Employers and A Playbook for SMEs.

 

These resources provide employers of varying sizes with strategies and supports to help bridge the gap – from fostering a health-focused culture to effectively communicating with employees to encouraging staff to access free government resources.

 

“According to the OCC’s 2021 Business Confidence Survey, 89% of employers believed spending on employee health and wellbeing was a good investment. Yet, only 53% said they had a formal strategy in place[1] – a situation the OCC refers to as the mental health action gap. While these numbers have improved since the Chamber’s 2016 survey, the action gap remains,” said Cambridge Chamber President and CEO Greg Durocher. “We know that mental health can be a challenging topic for businesses, but employers play a critical role in the employee health equation. We also know that inaction comes with a real cost.” 
 

Prior to COVID-19, poor mental health in the workplace accounted for:

  • $50 billion in direct costs per year, including health care, social services, and income support like short- and long-term disability claims;
  • $6.3 billion in indirect costs from lost productivity; and
  • 500,000 Canadians missing work each week due to mental health issues or illnesses.

“Many employers are looking for practical steps they can take and resources they can easily leverage to develop psychologically healthy and safe workplaces. We’re pleased to release these tools during Mental Health Awareness Month in partnership with Sun Life to help businesses address this action gap,” said Rocco Rossi, President and CEO of the OCC.

 

To support employees’ mental health, the Playbook for Employers encourages businesses to focus on five key areas:

  • Develop a mental health strategy. This strategy should be linked to an organization’s equity, diversity, and inclusion plans and include performance measures to monitor progress.
  • Build a psychologically healthy and safe workplace culture. Training and employee engagement can create a positive workplace culture.
  • Communicate widely and regularly. Continuous, two-way communication between leaders and employees is key to destigmatizing mental health and encouraging employees to access supports.
  • Ensure adequate resources for employees and their families. Supports should be varied, visible, and accessible – both in-person and virtually.
  • Prepare for hybrid work (if applicable). Consider what steps need to be taken in the long run for a hybrid work environment. Hybrid or flexible work environments can benefit employee mental wellness, but it is important to equip leaders and employees with the resources needed to thrive in this new way of working.

“Creating mentally healthy workplaces is critical to Canada’s long-term recovery,” said Jacques Goulet, President, Sun Life Canada. “Businesses have an opportunity to reimagine their roles – including how they support employees’ physical and mental wellness and improve company culture going forward. This Playbook for Employers serves to empower businesses and build a healthier, more resilient Canada.”

 

Read the Mental Wellness in the Workplace: A Playbook for Employers.

 

Read A Playbook for SMEs.
 

Thanks to our Exclusive Landmark Partner, Sun Life, as well as OCC members and mental health experts who contributed to the development of this resource.

 

 

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Having employees return to the workplace will be a welcomed sign for many as an indication the worst days of the pandemic may finally be behind us.

 

But that return will be accompanied by questions and concerns as businesses and their staff learn to navigate what is likely going to be a very different work environment – both professionally and personally - compared to the one they left in March 2020.

 

“There are a lot of employers and HR people who right now are putting together some policies and codes of conduct for their workplace,” says Julie Blais Comeau, Chief Etiquette Officer at Etiquettejulie.com, explaining that these guidelines will be imperative for employees. “At first, generally speaking, we’re all going to follow our employers’ guidelines.”

 

But outside of these guidelines there will be the personal interactions with both co-workers and clients, many of whom returning employees may not have seen in-person since the start of the pandemic.

 

In terms of these interactions, various safety protocols we’ve all lived with for the past year and half – wearing masks and staying socially distanced – will likely remain at the forefront of our minds when we once again are face-to-face with others.

 

“Before asking any questions or displaying certain behaviours, you’re going to think back to your relationship with that person from before,” says Julie, suggesting approaching from the perspective of ‘friend or foe’. “You’re going to want to switch that lens 180 degrees and approach them from an empathic perspective. How do you feel that person perceives you?”

She recommends letting a person’s body language guide you, noting that 55% of communication is based on body language and that tone and pitch of the voice make up the remainder.

 

“Make sure that whatever you’re going to do or say will be perceived in a positive manner,” says Julie. “There will be nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’m so glad to see you again – how are you?’. And then wait and observe the visual cues.”

 

She says taking the cues from the person you’re interacting with is very important, noting that in some cultures personal health issues are not something that is shared, while others may prefer to keep their mental and physical health status private.

 

“If you’re going to ask questions then ask yourself why are you asking? Are you generally concerned or being cautious for yourself or is it just curiosity?” says Julie, adding being ‘nosy’ is not a valid reason. “What is the context of why I’m asking and what could be the consequences if it’s not interpreted well?”

When it comes to sharing one’s vaccination status, she says it’s OK to volunteer your status if you are comfortable with that person but that others may not feel the same.

 

“Some people don’t want to say because they’re afraid of confrontation and afraid the other person is going to lobby for them to get vaccinated,” says Julie, noting there are many reasons why a person may choose not to be vaccinated. “I think we have to be very benevolent and respectful for the people who don’t want to.”

 

Questions surrounding vaccinations and how employers must handle this issue is a key concern right now says Victoria Vati, Account Manager at Peninsula Canada. The company provides a variety of services pertaining to human resources and health and safety.

 

“Each individual workplace has a number of staff all of whom will have a different level of understanding and different opinions,” says Victoria, noting ensuring staff remains safe but also feels secure are top priorities when it comes to implementing workplace guidelines and policies.

 

She says her company has been providing the latest information regarding the vaccines to ensure its employees have the education they need to make informed choices. Also, she says some companies may even provide a day off for employees to get their vaccinations.

 

“Finding a balance that works not only for your industry but for your staff will be the most important thing,” she says. “Not every business has the luxury of having employees work from home. You need to find a good balance that meets health and safety requirements but doesn’t infringe on anyone’s human rights.”

 

She says screening and contact tracing will continue to be very important, as well providing things such as hand sanitizer and even wearing masks.

 

“You can still argue right now masks are mandatory and must be worn in common areas, especially when social distancing rules cannot be applied,” says Victoria, adding businesses can insist masks continue to be worn even if they are no longer mandatory in public places.

 

She says ensuring employees are aware of the health and safety policies that are in place is vital through signage and written communications.

 

“If you don’t have it in writing, it doesn’t really exist,” says Victoria, referring to guidelines and polices.

 

She says the pandemic may have provided businesses with a unique opportunity.

 

“Let’s try to come out of this with new ideas and a bright fresh start; it’s kind of having hit the reset button,” says Victoria.

 

Julie agrees and says etiquette is also constantly evolving.

 

“We observe with this great microscope what is commonly agreed upon as to what is acceptable for a large group of us versus another,” she says, referring to etiquette experts like herself. “Society dictates what is appropriate.”

 

For more information, please visit Peninsula Canada or Etiquettejulie.com.

 

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The news we heard Thursday from Waterloo Region’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hsiu-Li Wang was extremely disappointing to us. Our Board of Directors adamantly encourages all businesses to practice within the law but also echoes your concerns and disappointment at this decision.

 

In fact, officially, the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce does not support Dr. Wang’s recommendation to keep the Waterloo Region in Stage 1 of Ontario’s reopening framework, considering the rest of the province will be moving into Stage 2 on June 30, an estimated two weeks ahead of our Region. As such, we would have preferred this move to Stage 2 remain on hold until Waterloo Region can catch up.

 

In fact, our Region did its best to help the province in the early stages of the third wave through the redirection of vaccines to hotspots around the GTA to curb the spread in those communities which significantly helped, but in the end proved detrimental to us, so it seems only fair to suggest some courtesy be extended to the citizens of Waterloo Region.

The Region has been calling for a ramp up of vaccine allocations and while that has started to occur, it is in fact a case of too little too late.

 

We understand the worries surrounding a possible fourth wave if dramatic steps are not taken and are very aware of the threat the Delta variant poses, especially amid troubling reports of people who are not following the provisions of the law by gathering in groups which in turn are creating community and workplace outbreaks. Currently, we are now seeing COVID-19 patients being transferred to hospitals outside our Region due to capacity concerns.

 

This is all very frustrating and discouraging to think that people would intentionally break the rules, risk lives, and in the end hurt businesses.

 

Our local Public Health officials have determined that if we do not hold back a bit, we will very likely see a fourth wave that could easily spread provincewide resulting in not only another round of restrictions, but another potential lockdown.

 

Keeping this in mind, we are continuing our efforts to fight for added supports from both the Federal and Provincial levels of government and calling for more vaccines so we can protect our community and get things open sooner. The Chamber will continue to do all it can to support, guide and advise to the best of its ability until this crisis finally comes to an end.

 

Sincerely,

 

Greg Durocher

President/CEO

 

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Like many parents, the pandemic forced Alexandra Allen to drastically alter her family’s routine when it came to child care as she and her husband came up with ways to juggle work and their children’s needs.

 

Trying to work a full-time job while also being a full-time child-care provider is enough to make you go crazy,” says the Cambridge mother referring to the period when she pulled her two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter out of daycare after the centres were first allowed to reopen last June, relying instead on family supports.

 

However, when they returned to the YWCA child-care centre they attend at a local school in the fall, Alexandra says this proved difficult since she was required to still pay for her spots even if the children were unable to attend due to illness.

 

“It became financially taxing in November, especially when it got colder and the kids couldn’t spend as much time outside,” she says, adding even a case of the sniffles meant keeping the child at home. “There needs to be bigger help.”

 

Rosalind Gunn, Director of Marketing and Communications at YWCA Cambridge, agrees and says the need for a national child-care strategy to foster economic growth and stability was first identified in 1967’s Royal Commission on the Status of Women, but little has transpired since that time to address those concerns.

 

“It’s actually not a new problem. Just like so many other social services or conditions of living, the pandemic has only really exposed the fault lines,” she says. “There have always been these issues.”

 

She says our region, which has seen at least 40% of its child-care operators remain closed since the start of the pandemic, was already experiencing a shortage of spaces and estimates before COVID-19 there were only 216 child-care spots available for every 1,000 kids looking for space.

Rosalind says many operators have stayed closed due to lower enrolments since the ratios were reduced in the beginning and that many parents - whether they were working from home, lost their jobs or had safety concerns – started keeping their children out of daycare full time.

 

“Even though we’re now able to operate at full capacity, many providers don’t want to do that because they don’t want to risk any outbreaks,” she says, adding more staff is needed to ensure the safety of fewer children which leads to higher costs. “It’s sort of the perfect storm.”

 

For Alexandra, who works as a volunteer program co-ordinator at Hospice Waterloo Region, she says having family members help them out in the summer was a luxury that many parents aren’t fortunate enough to have.

“But by the end of summer, we had grown really tired of making it work so we put the kids back in child care by September,” she says. “Right away it was challenging.”

 

Alexandra says she’s fortunate Hospice Waterloo Region let her adjust her work schedule accordingly, but that her husband, who does shift work at Toyota Motor Manufacturing, isn’t able to do the same.

 

“It would be nice if some money could flow towards child care so that parents like us don’t have to struggle so hard,” she says. “It’s a tough situation for parents who want to keep working.”

 

Rosalind agrees, explaining that since women make up approximately 40% of household incomes and that the COVID-19 crisis has had a disproportionate economic impact on women, there is already a significant ripple effect occurring.

 

“We know that investing in child care brings money into the entire economy and bolsters everyone,” she says, noting for example that subsidized daycare in Quebec results in $147 being put back into the economy with every $100 of publicly invested money. “There is a direct link there with child care.”

 

However, there is a glimmer of hope for change. According to the Ontario Chamber of Commerce’s recent report The She-Covery Project: Confronting the Gendered Economic Impacts of COVID-19 in Ontario, both the federal and provincial ggovernments are supporting licensed providers with funding to absorb added costs, including nearly $147 million through the Canada-Ontario Early Learning and Child Care Agreement and $234.6 million through the Safe Restart Agreement.

 

Also, in the last election, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to address shortcomings in the system by creating 250,000 additional child-care spaces across Canada, with at least 10% reserved for care during extended hours, and establishing a national secretariat to lay the groundwork for a pan-Canadian child-care system.

 

“We’re all really latching on to this opportunity to keep pushing for actual tangible change,” says Rosalind, adding support for change from organizations like the OCC and Canadian Chamber of Commerce is helping.

 

Earlier this month the Canadian Chamber of Commerce’s Council for Women’s Advocacy released a statement offering five recommendations to the federal government to support women and foster economic growth due to the pandemic.

 

These included: working with province, territories and stakeholders to ensure schools and daycares remain open through subsequent waves across the country; establishment of an inclusive Task Force to focus on child-care capacity and support through the ongoing crisis; removing tax barriers for child care; providing enhanced opportunities for women-owned businesses to meaningfully access public procurement contracts, including federal government diversity targets specifically for women-owned business and female workforces; and supporting job pivots for women, including training, upskilling and job transitions.

 

As well, the OCC’s The She-Covery Project report recommended several child-care reforms, including increased investment, subsidizing parents and providers, prioritizing equity, and addressing the shortage of early childhood educators. Also, the report suggested both the federal and provincial governments ‘explore’ creative solutions ranging from in-program changes to workplace-based child care.

 

“There is hope when we’re seeing such cross-sector acknowledgement that there is a need for child care that is good for the entire economy,” says Rosalind. “I do think there is hope for change.”

 

Read The She-Covery Project report at: https://occ.ca/wp-content/uploads/OCC-shecovery-final.pdf

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When it comes to the battle against COVID-19, businesses need an arsenal of weapons at their disposal.  

 

One of the best, besides the necessary PPE, is contact tracing which is a core disease control measure.

 

“To reduce the spread of COVID-19 in a workplace, it is critical businesses conduct contact tracing,” says Dr. Ryan Van Meer, Associate Medical Officer of Health, Waterloo Region Public Health. “Businesses know where staff work, with whom, and when, and have means to contact staff who may have had close (high risk) contact in a prompt manner to instruct them to self-isolate and get tested.”

 

He says many workplaces are conducting contact tracing well, despite the fact there may be the perception it is difficult because it is typically done by nurses and other professionals.

 

“But many workplaces have gained experience with it over the pandemic and our COVID-19 Contact Tracing resource is an excellent tool to help guide them through the decision-making process,” says Dr. Van Meer.

 

At the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, we have partnered with Get Ready, a CBRN and Chamber Member, to provide an easy electronic screening tool to ensure the safety of our staff, customers, visitors and contractors, entering our office. The tool utilizes a quick scan of a ‘QR Code’ on their mobile devices or desktops which provides all the necessary information that Public Health will require for contact tracing purposes should an employee get sick or exposed to the virus in the workplace.  The province of Ontario has required all workplaces to implement daily screening for any workers or essential visitors entering the work environment.

 

Dr. Van Meer says the Region has resources in place to assist workplaces.

 

“Our guide for workplaces helps employers determine who is a close (high risk) contact that needs to self-isolate and get tested,” he says, adding there are other ‘upstream’ public health measures workplaces can use to prevent high risk contact. These include physical distancing, PPE, preventing close contact during lunches and breaks, as well as environmental cleaning and disinfection.

 

Dr. Van Meer says when there are multiple confirmed cases in a workplace, the Region’s Workplace Team follows up directly with the employer to support contact tracing and ensures Public Health measures are in place to prevent further spread.

 

“We currently have approximately 135 staff supporting case and contact management across all settings, as well as additional support from the province,” says Dr. Van Meer, adding there are steps employers must take if a worker tests positive for the virus. “Workplaces should work with their employee who is a confirmed case and consult the Contact Tracing guide for workplaces to determine who would have had close (high risk) contact with the case during the period the case was infectious and instruct those contacts to self-isolate and get tested.”

 

For more information on the Region of Waterloo’s COVID-19 resources for workplaces, visit: https://bit.ly/2ODUWEx

 

To learn more about the ‘Get Ready’ screening tool for your office, please visit: https://bit.ly/3euKYQQ

 

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