As the reality of COVID-19 began to set in, many employers adopted a work-from-home (WFH) model out of necessity due to quarantine measures, lockdown restrictions and health scares. Although telecommuting isn’t solely a pandemic-era phenomenon, it has become increasingly popular in recent years. According to reports published by Indeed and Glassdoor, job searches for remote work have grown a whopping 360% since June 2019.
With hybrid and WFH models becoming the new standard, employees have enjoyed greater flexibility, freedom of choice and improved work-life balance. For many, this has become the norm and is viewed as more desirable than going back into the office. But lately, we’ve started to wonder if working remotely is good for everyone’s mental health.
Since we all have different needs and wants, it shouldn’t be surprising the simple answer is no. According to some surveys, 1 in 3 workers have said that ending WFH policies has negatively impacted their mental health, causing issues like increased stress and anxiety. However, another 1 in 3 experienced the opposite effect: for some people, going back into the office was a net gain for their mental health, helping them to feel more engaged.
So employers are receiving mixed signals as they try to get people back into the workplace. But negative responses and recent spikes in COVID-19 cases are complicating their plans this winter. As companies decide whether to adopt a remote, hybrid or office-centric model going into the new year, they’ll need to address the challenges of each approach and prioritize their employees’ mental wellness during the transition.
Here are some of the biggest concerns workers have about returning to the office and what employers can do about them.
When it comes to going back into the office, most people are about their physical health. They want to know that their workplace is safe to return to and won’t increase their risk of contracting COVID-19. They’re also concerned about transmitting the virus to at-risk family members who are either immunocompromised or too young to get vaccinated.
Parents and caregivers are more likely than other workers to be stressed about their return. Last year, a June 2021 McKinsey survey found that 44% of parents said that an end to WFH policies negatively impacted their mental health — compared to 27% of respondents without children. Similarly, an AARP study showed that 75% of family caregivers worry about juggling their responsibilities and bringing home the virus to their loved ones.
Workers say that more time off, flexible work schedules and a hybrid model could help them manage their stress as they transition back into the office. On-site accommodations such as mental health support and child care options are cited as helpful, too.
The authors of the McKinsey survey also had recommendations for how employers could address health-related concerns, such as regular COVID testing, social distancing, mask-wearing requirements, improved ventilation, deep cleaning practices and more.
Researchers have also warned that going back into the office could increase the risk of burnout. The flexibility and autonomy provided by WFH allow people to maintain a better work-life balance, which has had a positive impact on their mental health and wellness. However, losing that can cause the symptoms of burnout to return.
Burnout can show up in a variety of ways. For many, it can lead to exhaustion and a depletion of their mental and emotional resources. Others might experience a sense of cynical detachment and reduced productivity. In fact, compared to their colleagues, those who experience the symptoms of burnout and a decline in their mental wellness by going back into the office are five times more likely to take on reduced responsibilities at work.
One way companies can help combat this effect is by keeping some of the autonomy employees feel when working from home. For example, empowering individuals to shift their schedules to avoid lengthy commutes or negotiating how many days they come into the office can help ease some anxiety about returning to the workplace.
Burnout can also be alleviated by improved self-care and mental health resources at work. Offering employees the tools to maintain their mental wellness can help them stay happy, healthy and productive as they navigate a return back into the office.
Employers should also consider how going back into the office can affect things like equity, diversity and inclusion. Experts say that younger men without children are more likely to opt into a voluntary return to the workplace, but having different groups in the office and at home can leave some behind when new practices or policies are adopted.
Some parents and caregivers are also concerned that taking advantage of flexible or hybrid work hours could have a negative impact on their careers. They often have additional responsibilities and pressures at home to attend to, and many are worried that they’ll be left out of workplace conversations if they’re not back in the office five days a week.
Leaders can help alleviate these fears by modeling the right behaviors and setting realistic expectations. If a company offers a hybrid model, managers can show they also value the flexibility and work-life balance it provides by opting into it, too. Employees who see this are more likely to feel comfortable about utilizing the available accommodations.
Leadership will also have to be mindful to make sure that no one feels left out. On average, research has shown that executives and white men are more enthusiastic about going back into the office than other groups, which has some experts fearing that hybrid models might recreate a “boys’ club” mentality that just doesn’t fit with today’s more diverse workforce.
Designing an approach that prioritizes flexibility and addresses the potential for bias can help overcome these issues. Providing child care support, ensuring reviews are based on performance and over ace time, and not passing over remote workers for promotions are all ways we can provide a more equitable, inclusive workplace in the post-COVID era.
At Sokya, we know that going back into the office or changing up your work routine isn’t always easy. Our hope is that employers will take steps to ensure that all individuals feel safe, comfortable and heard as they transition to new hybrid or office-centric models. However, if you find yourself struggling and would like some extra support, we can help. We offer mental health services like therapy, groups, coaching, medication management and more that you can access online, in person or through our mobile app. To connect with a Care Coordinator and build your own mental wellness circle today, click here or call 866-65-SOKYA.