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WestJet’s lessons learned during the pandemic on furthering mental health in the workplace

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

In May 2021 we celebrated the two-year anniversary of Headway, a workplace mental health movement Sklar Wilton & Associates launched in memory of our founder, Luke Sklar. In this blog series, we’ll showcase success stories from our Headway members and highlight the specific actions they’ve taken to elevate the importance of employee mental health. We hope their stories will inspire others to follow in their footsteps.

Mental health became even more evident and important in 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit and companies across Canada were faced with the biggest workplace mental health crisis they had ever experienced. And business leaders stepped up! We’ve seen some incredible actions from our Headway members in their commitment to prioritize the wellbeing of their employees.

The airline industry was one of the most impacted industries during the COVID-19 pandemic. They had a truly hard time and had to make some tough decisions. We had the opportunity to connect with Richard Bartem, Vice President of Corporate Communications and Chief of Staff to the CEO of WestJet. He shared with us the story of WestJet during the pandemic, what helped them during this difficult time and the lessons learned that will guide them forward as they continue to prioritize mental health in the workplace. Here is his story:

“On behalf of WestJet, I want to thank the team at Sklar Wilton & Associates for the opportunity to provide WestJet’s perspectives and our lessons learned on furthering mental health in the workplace as we mark the second anniversary of Headway, the mental health workplace initiative. Luke’s death was a most tragic circumstance. Through the team at SW&A, this tragedy brought about an important legacy for us all: the creation of Headway.

While mental health in the workplace was already a crucial conversation that needed to be brought into the light. The events of the last year and half underscored just how important initiatives like Headway are as we begin the recovery from a global pandemic. COVID-19 has had a detrimental impact in mental health in all aspects of life. And we are without a doubt in a new work paradigm where there is no playbook on how to deal with a pandemic in the modern work world. We believe talking about, and doing something about, mental health will be a strategic imperative for all companies in the future. We are honored to be asked to provide an overview on how WestJet is talking about mental health at work and, in particular, I’d like to tell you a couple of things that WestJet has done in the mental health space, and what we’ve learned over the last year and a half.

First, I’d like to provide some context on the impact of the pandemic on the airline industry, and specifically, our business. From the onset of the pandemic, in Canada in March 2020, the borders around the world closed and world’s airline industry reacted swiftly. At its worst, the pandemic caused for WestJet a 90% drop in demand, our capacity was cut by more than 80% and the number of guests we carried was down by roughly 80%. In April of this year, of the 180 aircraft in our fleet, 150 of them, were still grounded. We had to cut our costs by more than 60% as we navigated through constantly changing restrictions and orders and the vaccine roll-out slowly gaining momentum. This obviously had a tremendous impact on our people. At the start of the pandemic, we numbered 14,000 WestJet employees in our company. As a result of this drop in demand, we had to permanently release and furlough a great number of those as we awaited the return of travel.

As we grappled with the pandemic and its impact, two fortuitous initiatives had already been rolled out at the beginning of 2019 which would assist us tremendously. First, WestJet had already become one of the more than 700 companies across Canada who are part of the Not Myself Today initiative, an evidence-based practical solution to help employers transform mental health at work. So even before COVID arrived in Canada, WestJet had already opened the door to talking about mental health and acclimating our WestJet employees to the idea that it’s ok to not be ok.

The second initiative was the introduction of Microsoft Teams. Our IT department had rolled out Teams as part of our workplace modernization efforts and as part of the Office365 introduction. We were now equipped with the ability to video conference from anywhere. Little did we know, how much this technology, and the efforts of the IT team to implement it, would have an impact on our business. Despite no training, we adapted well to working from home.

As the full force of the pandemic hit, we essentially went into emergency response mode. We activated our incident command centre, as we would for any emergency at the airline, and this team met three times a day through March and April 2020, then daily, twice weekly, and finally weekly. These meetings have moved from Incident Command to Business Continuity meetings, and they continue today more than a year since the start of the pandemic. We also introduced all-company webinars where our CEO and members of our executive leadership team meet with employees through Teams. Employees can ask questions in advance, which ensures the content is meeting their needs. These too have been in place since March 2020, starting first bi-weekly and now as of April 2021, on a monthly basis.

Which leads me to our first lesson learned. Much like the three key tenants of real estate are location, location, location – what we have learned is the importance of communicate, communicate, communicate. The stress, anxiety and uncertainty brought about by the pandemic has been eased somewhat by our efforts to be transparent and forthright with our communications. We’ve heard from many of our WestJet employees that they like our “tell it like it is” approach and that it has helped them through this situation. Having already introduced the concept of openly talking about mental health, we also launched a series of initiatives that are helping our WestJet employees and bringing these conversations out into the open. We changed our benefits program to allow for more funds being made available for mental health initiatives. We wanted to make sure that as we increased the dialogue around mental health at work, the resources were available for those employees seeking more assistance.

As part of our pandemic response, we also launched weekly mental health webinars for our global leadership team to assist them in navigating through this crisis and to provide insights on how to manage their teams and themselves from a mental health perspective. Topics have ranged from fatigue, to dealing with the loss of a colleague, to dealing with mask anxiety. These webinars have provided leaders with the tools, the thinking and, most importantly, the safe space to have these conversations. Over the course of the last year, it has been amazing and inspiring to see how many of our employees are openly having conversations around mental health. We want to work to a place where mental health conversations are completely de-stigmatized and we believe we are moving at a good pace in that direction.

This brings me to the second lesson that we have learned and that is on being deliberate or purposeful. We have taken on mental health, head on. As we re-wrote our 5-year plan last year, we updated our areas of purpose to include mental health. It is now as important an initiative to us as the environment or diversity & inclusion.

We had good timing on a couple of fronts where we introduced technology and started a conversation before the onslaught of COVID-19. And our two key lessons are rooted in intent. You can never communicate too much, particularly on a subject like mental health, in order to make it more acceptable a topic. And we learned to be purposeful in our efforts to bring mental health into the open in the workplace.”

We want to thank Richard Bartem and the WestJet team for sharing their story with us and inspiring us with their hope and resilience. It’s great to hear that in even the most affected industries, mental health is playing a bigger role in current and future strategies, as leaders like those as WestJet truly understand the important of employee well-being.

Looking for more inspiration on how to bring change to your organization? We will continue sharing how our Headway members have prioritized mental wellbeing in their own workplaces in the hopes that it will help to inspire other leaders to do the same.  We know that only through strong commitment and bold action can we see real change.


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