Atlantic Leader Insights: Christine Hanson Discusses the Effects of COVID-19 on the Region's Workforce and Finding Hope in Uncertain Times

Atlantic Leader Insights

Enhancing Atlantic Canada’s economy through the strengthening of our workforce

Andrea Forbes-Hurley interviewed Christine Hanson, CEO of Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC), in April 2020, as organizations grapple with the impact of COVID-19. As the leader of an independent government agency tasked with administering the Nova Scotia Human Rights Act, Hanson provides a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities employers face in balancing employees’ rights with public health and safety amidst a global pandemic.

While Hanson grew up in Nova Scotia, her point of view is informed by her experience as an international lawyer and diplomat with Global Affairs Canada and in her current national role as Chair of the Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies. She shares her thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic will change the way we work and where she is finding hope amidst the uncertainty.

Q: Universally employers are challenged by the need to adapt their operations in response to COVID-19. What do you believe are the most significant workplace issues for employers as they seek to balance an employee’s right to non-discrimination and civil liberties with public health and safety?

A: I think balance is really the keyword there. It’s really important to be clear that human rights laws recognize the importance of balancing peoples’ rights, for instance, to non-discrimination and their civil liberties, along with public health and safety.

The most significant issue I think employers have been grappling with from the beginning is ensuring their various workplace policies are not negatively impacting employees who cannot perform their work duties for reasons related to COVID-19. Employers are trying to balance this with their expectations that employees continue to perform their work to the best of their abilities. It is completely reasonable for employers to ask their employees to continue to conduct their work while in quarantine or self-isolation but they cannot discipline or terminate an employee who cannot work as a result of directives from public health officials.

The Commission has also been getting a lot of calls from employers about the accommodation of caregiving responsibilities. Many employers must now consider making accommodations for employees who are looking after their children as a result of school closures or taking care of vulnerable or sick family members. This accommodation requirement falls under the Human Rights Act’s ground of family status and we have been advising employers that they have a duty to accommodate these caregiving responsibilities up to the point of undue hardship.

I have found a great deal of receptivity on the part of the people that are connecting with me and my team at the Commission. They want to do the right thing and we really appreciate that so many people are looking to apply a human rights lens to decision making.

Q: What advice do you, and the NSHRC, offer to employers as they navigate these issues?

A: The most important piece of advice we want to give employers right now is to be flexible.

I believe many employers have done an excellent job of accommodating and offering employees flexible work options. As we know, many employers are now letting their teams work from home to the extent possible. Organizations are helping employees rearrange work hours and are even creating different shifts so employees can work on the weekends if that's what they need.              

I'm really impressed overall at the amount of accommodation that we're seeing in workplaces across the province.

Q: Have the recent public health advisories and restrictions in response to COVID-19 had disproportionate impacts on employees within vulnerable groups?

A: It’s a difficult situation and we’re seeing a broad spectrum of issues. There's no question that COVID-19 is already having a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups which includes people with disabilities, older people who might be living alone or in institutions, and racialized communities where people often have unequal access to things like childcare or are more likely to be underemployed. I think now, more than ever, people living in vulnerable circumstances need our support so we're strongly encouraging employers to be mindful about how the crisis is amplifying the challenges and disadvantages for people from these more vulnerable populations.

It’s unfortunate, but across Canada, human rights commissions have had to release statements concerning the issue of racism and other forms of discrimination related to COVID-19. This virus does not discriminate, we know that, but unfortunately, some people do.

We are trying to encourage good decisions around the provision of services and the treatment of employees. Decisions should be based upon public health advice and not on irrational fears or negative stereotypes about certain people. It's unfortunate that it’s a part of our work but we're continuing to address it.

...we're strongly encouraging employers to be mindful about how the crisis is amplifying the challenges for people from more vulnerable populations.

Q: In some ways, the impacts of COVID-19 will forever change the way we work. From a Human Rights perspective, what will be some of the most significant challenges and opportunities ahead for organizations and their employees?

A: I think the challenges are enormous on all fronts. Aside from the very obvious economic challenges that many organizations already face and will continue to face for some time in the aftermath of this public health emergency, from the Commission’s perspective we are deeply concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health here in the province.

Over the past few years, there has been a growing awareness and a greater degree of comfort in having conversations about the importance of mental health in the workplace. Those conversations need to continue to take place. Social isolation is going to contribute to mental health challenges for a lot of people. Everyone is under huge amounts of stress right now, from workplace stressors like dealing with layoffs or business closures to personal stressors such as homeschooling children and the difficulties associated with personal tasks like buying groceries.

I think addressing the mental health impacts of this crisis will be a big challenge for organizations and employees moving forward and we’re encouraging employers to be as flexible as possible, in the current circumstances, in accommodating mental and physical disabilities.

We’re also encouraging employers to maintain regular communication with their teams to assess people’s well-being. For example, in our office, we’re conducting all-staff Zoom meetings twice a week to keep tabs on how people are coping. If we get the sense an employee is struggling or perhaps needs additional support to do their work, we can get them the help they need. That’s one way we’re approaching the challenge. 

In terms of opportunities, I think there is a huge opportunity for organizations to embrace and transition to more flexible remote work arrangements. In my over 20-year career, I’ve seen employers dabble, to varying degrees of success, with things like telework and I think part of the problem in adopting more flexible work arrangements has been a lack of buy-in from senior leadership.  The current circumstances are forcing many employers out of their comfort zones.

Many organizations are innovating how they work and are starting to embrace the technologies that will allow their employees to have more flexibility in the way they work. I think it is going to be a really great growth opportunity for organizations, leaders, and employees as they become more adept at using these technologies and will hopefully open more people up to the idea of working this way in the future.

Q: Looking ahead, and considering the long-term implications of the current pandemic, what do you predict will be the defining changes to the workforce and economic landscape of Atlantic Canada over the next five to 10 years?

A: There’s no question that organizations, employers, and employees are going to learn and grow from this experience. We're going to see workplaces embrace more flexible work arrangements and I hope this will lead to better work-life balance and will reduce the prevalence of mental health challenges in the workplace.

I think organizations were already on their way to adopting these new ways of working, mainly driven by millennials who have been more demanding of work-life balance than previous generations, but the current circumstances have rapidly increased the pace of change.

Modernizing our organization has been central to the Commission’s strategic plan over the past few years. It has essentially allowed us to continue delivering our mandate to protect and promote human rights in the province without skipping a beat. The Commission’s website is regularly updated, staff have all the IT tools they need to work remotely, our dispute resolution process is fully operational, and our virtual classroom continues to provide free training to hundreds of people every week.  

I hope this experience will also provide people with an increased capacity for empathy and a deeper understanding that we are all part of a community. Whether you are a part of the government, an essential service, or a business, right now we're all on team ‘fight COVID-19’, and by working together we will overcome this. I truly believe that.

Everyone is making sacrifices right now and I’ve been seeing amazing examples of people stepping up and helping each other for no reason other than it's the right thing to do. Things can certainly seem difficult and even bleak at times, but I am encouraged to also see many signs of positive changes, of people getting creative, supporting those in need, and that gives me a lot of hope and optimism for the future.

About Atlantic Leader Insights

Atlantic Canada’s economy is fueled by a diverse array of private and public sector entities that employ thousands of people and contribute to our region’s growth and prosperity. But how are these organizations optimizing the potential of their people, and what insights have they gained about the future of our economy from their innovative initiatives?

KBRS recognizes the critical importance of attracting, developing, and retaining inspiring leaders and top talent within Atlantic Canada. We sat down with leaders at several high-impact Atlantic Canadian organizations to talk about our region’s opportunities and challenges. This article is one in a series that aims to collect these leaders’ insights on how we can enhance our economic outlook by strengthening our workforce.

Christine Hanson
Christine Hanson

CEO, Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, 2016 - Present

Andrea Forbes-Hurley
Andrea Forbes-Hurley

Managing Partner, KBRS