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How Companies Can Support Mental Health as Employees Return to the Office

February 07, 2022 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

With more employers taking steps back to the office, leaders will have to put more emphasis on employees’ mental health than they did when they were last working together in person. Burnout, work-related anxiety and depression are some of the core issues that have risen to the fore over the last two years of remote and distributed working. 

There's reason for concern. More than 30 percent of employees said their return to the workplace has had a negative impact on their mental health and that they are feeling depressed and anxious, according to a 2021 analysis by consulting firm McKinsey.

Companies that recognize and prioritize psychological health and safety along with support for flexibility, can help boost employees’ mental health and cultivate an inclusive workplace. This mental and emotional support can have concrete effects on well-being, productivity, satisfaction and absenteeism.

Grief, Exhaustion and Burnout on the Rise

Despite the emergence of new COVID variants, most people are contemplating a future where they don’t have to isolate, wear masks in public and practice social distancing. Yet, even in that less isolated world, feelings of grief, exhaustion, depression, exasperation and burnout will remain a reality for many. 

More than 5.7 million people have died from COVID as of February 2022, including 900,000 Americans. A Forbes poll conducted in March 2021 showed that 20 percent of Americans have lost someone close to them due to COVID-19. Based on the working population in the US, this means 42 percent of employees are grieving from the loss of a loved one strictly caused by the virus. Those numbers are staggering. It’s no wonder that a mental health crisis is upon us. 

Returning to the office is adding to the stress. According to one study by Limeade, a Bellevue, Wash.-based employee experience software company, a remarkable 100 percent of formerly onsite employees are anxious about returning to the office. Similarly, a report by LHH and The Adecco Group found that 49 percent of leaders and 42 percent of non-managers feel or have felt that anxiety about their office return. According to the study, 38 percent of workers globally have suffered from burnout over the past year — 45 percent of Generation Z and 42 percent of Millennials — and 32 percent said their mental health has declined as a result.

MetLife's 2020 study on employee benefit trends revealed that 58 percent of employees who are struggling said their employer does not provide mental health programs that fulfill their needs, or if they do, they are hard to access or understand. This leaves tremendous opportunity for companies to play a larger role in the healing process.

Related Article: How to Recognize, Mitigate and Potentially Prevent Burnout in Remote Employees

What's Missing in the Remote Workplace?

While the ability to interact with others during the workday may be distracting to some, it is a positive part of the day for many. The proverbial water cooler provides an opportunity for employees to connect or discuss work in an informal way. The office environment also allows employees to have spontaneous conversations with colleagues and managers, especially if leadership fosters an open-door policy.

In a remote workplace, all of these aspects are missing or, at best, lacking. There's also a lack of open discussion about mental health issues. As employees return to the office, whether full time or hybrid, leaders must take away the stigma that lingers around mental health issues and make the topic a normal part of workplace discussion.

Nichole Viviani, chief people and marketing officer at Xplor Technologies, an Austin, Texas-based payments processing software company, said one of the ways companies can prioritize mental healthcare is to openly discuss burnout, stress, mental health and wellbeing.

“When leaders normalize discussions on these topics, it empowers employees to do the same, reducing stigma and creating a more open culture where employees feel safe to talk about life’s real issues and empowered to seek support if they need it,” she said.

Employees often need to be reminded that it’s OK to talk about non-work topics. “Working from home during the pandemic has made it harder for team members to bond,” said Viviani. “Only talking about work and not allowing time for people to get to know each other personally can create a sense of isolation and loneliness.”

Related Article: Your Digital Workplace Can Be a Cause – and Antidote – to Burnout

The Flexible Workplace Improves Mental and Emotional Health

Companies that continue to encourage and support a flexible workplace can help employees transition from a fully remote to a hybrid or in-office workplace.

Steven Rothberg, chief visionary officer and founder of job search site College Recruiter, said companies can proactively take measures to support employees' mental health. His company provides access to healthcare, and includes paid time off so employees have time to unwind and spend time with family and friends. 

“At College Recruiter, we long ago decided that it was good business to be good to our employees,” said Rothberg. Among the benefits the company offers its employees, Rothberg mentioned a "Cadillac-level" healthcare plan that covers an employee's entire family and a paid week off at Thanksgiving. 

"We did not deduct those days from their paid time off nor shift holiday days from other times in the year into that week," he said. "We all used email autoresponders and updated our outgoing voice messages to communicate to customers, vendors, and partners that we were all off to help us better unplug and enjoy our families and friends."

Related Article: Your Next Killer Employee Experience App: PTO

Leadership Sets the Tone 

Bruce Mendelsohn, a communications and branding expert and principal of marketing and PR firm The Hired Pen, said regardless of the approaches companies use to support mental health, they must have the support of leadership and be authentic and consistent. If not, they risk not just losing employees but also eroding trust and loyalty.

"Authenticity and consistency should guide any approach, which must have C-suite support,” he said, adding that the younger workforce is quick to diagnose a lack of authenticity, which, when added to the stress of returning to the office, can negatively impact morale and cause a mass exodus.

Organizations that actively work to enhance and improve their employee health perks are more likely to succeed at improving and reinforcing company culture and a commitment to putting people first. Mendelsohn advised companies to build on their unique selling points to conceive, design, implement and evaluate internal branding campaigns that meaningfully, measurably and memorably enhance employee experience. To succeed, the focus on employee mental health must be a top-down venture.

"Without visible and vocal C-suite support, any initiative — however authentic or aligned with the brand — is doomed to fail,” said Mendelsohn. “And you can bet that disgruntled Gen Z and Millennial workers will deploy the full range of their social media prowess to broadcast their displeasure or disappointment with the company and the brand."

What Companies Can Do to Support Mental Health

At media conglomerate Cox Enterprises, leadership realized early in the pandemic that the mental health aspect would be important to address, said Jill Campbell, co-president and chief people officer.

"We needed easy-to-use digital solutions that our employees could access remotely," she said. "Many of our employees have been working remotely for over a year now, and providing access to a fitness solution was a real imperative for us."

In addition to offering access to Cox Enterprises’ Headspace meditation program, Teladoc Behavioral Health and OpenFit exercise classes, the company also has an employee assistance program, called Resources for Living Employee Assistance Program, which provides help to employees who are dealing with issues ranging from anxiety and depression to legal woes and relationship difficulties.

Steps to Help Employees Can Be Simple, Too

In many cases, taking small steps is often enough to help. Taking a breather, as simple as it sounds, is also an important element of well-being. Companies should allow employees to take time during the workday to still their mind.

“During the pandemic, people have adjusted to having their own space in their homes to do more than just work — from quick rests, to praying, meditating, exercising and other wellbeing activities,” said Xplor Technologies' Viviani. “Consider how you create spaces for similar activities as people return to your office.” 

Burnout, decreased productivity and resignations have made employee mental health a business issue, not simply an HR one. Employees mental health and well-being must become a top priority for companies, whether employees are going back to the office or not. By supporting flexibility in the workplace, normalizing the discussion of mental health issues and providing access to mental health solutions, companies will be in a better position to cultivate a culture of caring and well-being.

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