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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

Rough skies ahead

When the world shut down in early 2020, industries around the globe were forced into the realities of operating during a pandemic.

Perhaps no sector was as hard hit as the airline industry, with many organizations laying off thousands of workers in an effort to keep up with the ever-evolving landscape of COVID-19 travel.

WestJet’s organizational well-being manager Lisa Dodwell-Greaves described the experience as nerve wracking.

“In March 2020 we had 14,000 employees; by July that same year we were left with 4,300. Those initial months had lots of uncertainty. We had to redefine the organizational structure and identify a bare-bones minimum crew to keep the lights on.”

While laid-off employees were having to find new jobs in a tough labour market, those who stayed were facing longer hours, increased stress, and guilt — the kind that stems from continuing at work earning income after friends and colleagues have walked out the door.

Under these conditions Dodwell-Greaves knew she would have an important role to play in helping to maintain employee mental well-being and the workplace culture — in that order. “You can’t have company resilience without individual resilience first,” she said.

A need for support

Even under normal circumstances, work in the travel industry can be stressful. But with the added uncertainty the pandemic has brought, employees are encountering aggravated travellers more and more. “Those dealing with the general public took a lot of abuse in the initial days of the pandemic,” Dodwell-Greaves said.

Pilots and flight attendants found themselves being turned away from businesses and ostracized by friends and family because of their interactions with passengers. They also had fears for their own physical well-being, questioning if it was safe to show up for work.

Unfortunately, such stories have become all too common as the pandemic wears on. Organizations are therefore finding it increasingly important to protect their employees from harm and provide them with psychological and social support.

In WestJet’s case, these aims had been on the radar even before the pandemic began.

Building a strategy

In early 2020 WestJet committed to implementing the National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety and increasing their initiatives to support employees and their mental well-being. While the pandemic affected the original implementation plan, the company was still able to take steps in the right direction.

“The strategy we put together really keyed in on the next three to five years,” Dodwell-Greaves recalled. “We set out to take this big concept and put it into focused buckets where we could create some quick wins, things employees would support (or feel support from) and know they had gotten help — along with some areas where our leaders could start to support our employees in a more meaningful way.”

Also included was a variety of other initiatives and benefits for their workers. Even prior to COVID, in August 2019 and based on data from an analysis of short- and long-term disability claims, the organization was able to identify areas of further support and increase coverage for psychotherapy, psychology, and counselling for all qualifying employees.

WestJet’s early adoption of a broader mental wellness strategy allowed them to integrate further key initiatives into their pandemic operations. And one of the largest initiatives began with their leadership group.

Starting from the top

In 2021, WestJet ramped up their support for mental wellness by providing training to their managers through The Working Mind, an evidence-based course from the Mental Health Commission of Canada designed to reduce stigma around mental well-being in the workplace.

“Before we launched anything for our workers,” Dodwell-Greaves explained, “we wanted to make sure our managers had a sense of how to help them. Having support from our leadership team will give our employees the confidence of knowing that the organization is invested in their mental well-being.”

“It’s part of a larger mental health strategy,” she added, “one that goes beyond our employees to include our guests and also carry into the communities we serve.”

Over the coming year WestJet intends to build on the number of employees trained to support mental health and reduce stigma in the workplace.

Case Study: WestJet

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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