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What Is Really Hurting Employee Mental Health

October 28, 2022 Employee Experience
Kaya Ismail
By Kaya Ismail

Employee mental health is a vital consideration for managers seeking to build thriving workplaces. An increasing number of companies are investing in the wellbeing of their workforce, including offering flexible work arrangements for enhanced work-life balance.

But some say that in doing so, business is ignoring the warning signs that remote work is having a negative impact on mental health, thus negating the benefits of the work-from-home environment.

The culprit may not be as clear cut however.

A recent Cisco study of 28,000 employees worldwide has found that while it may be easy to point the finger at the work-from-anywhere model for employees' mounting feelings of isolation and stress, it may actually be managers' lack of boundaries that is to blame. 

Lack of Social Connection?

Social dynamics changed when employees shifted from working full-time in the office to working part-time in the office to working full-time from home. The much-heralded random hallway encounters and watercooler chats ended, along with after-work get-togethers and improvised brainstorming sessions.

Not having those connections is certainly a missing factor in today's environment — and the centerpiece for managers who like to blame remote work for declining productivity and increasing mental health issues. But research has found that one of the most significant advantages of remote workplaces, certainly from an employee point of view, is actually the reverse side of that argument: fewer distractions and lack of disruptions.

In other words, some employees do not appreciate all of the social interactions of an in-person workplace, typically because they interrupt the flow of work.

The hybrid model attempts to reconcile those two opposites, by enabling employees to utilize remote work times to focus on important tasks all the while having the ability to join coworkers on site for more social activities such as creative meetings and the sharing of ideas.

But if that's true and hybrid workers do not suffer from a lack of social connections, then what is causing their mental health issues?

Related Article: The Business Impact of Working When and Where You Want

What's Hurting Hybrid and Remote Workers' Mental Health?

Everyone is unique, and several reasons can bring about mental health issues, regardless of the work model. But when looking at the way companies are conducting business today, compared to pre-pandemic, the data points to three important areas to consider as potential risks to employee wellbeing:

1. Lack of Boundaries Between Work and Home

One of the most common issues found in remote workplaces is that employees can struggle to separate work life from home life. This "always-on" phenomenon has been reported by two-thirds of employees in a study conducted by the American Psychiatric Association. 

About 22% of the remote employees surveyed find getting away from work at the end of the day is a problem every day, whereas 45% of employees said that it's a problem only on occasion.

"Unreasonable behavior from leaders, like disrespecting employees’ boundaries or invading their privacy, is known to be one of the five greatest stressors employees experience at work,” said Janet Ahn, president and chief behavioral science officer at London-based MindGym. “Another [stressor] is demands that overwhelm resources: if an employee is contacted out-of-hours whilst fulfilling home responsibilities, for example, their wellbeing can easily begin to suffer.”

Related Article: 5 Uncomfortable Realities Remote Managers Must Accept to Succeed

2. Physical Posture

Another risk factor for mental health, according to research, is that most at-home office environments are not correctly set up for good working postures. An incorrect setup can lead to many employees suffering from musculoskeletal conditions, resulting in poor health and lost productivity.

When someone suffers from physical pain, like the one that comes from adopting a bad posture for too long, it can easily become an emotional pain.

3. Management and Monitoring

Another factor affecting mental health is how managers monitor and manage their teams. A recent survey by GMB union in the UK found that over a third of employees believe that managers conducting excess surveillance can negatively impact their mental health.

"What is also crucial to keep in mind is that you, as the manager, should avoid the situation of so-called productivity paranoia," said Vytautas Juskevicius, chief marketing officer at Poland-based Tidio.

The practice of monitoring employees can have wide-reaching consequences, not just for the employee but also for the employer, as there are legal limitations to how far surveillance of workers can go.

Related Article: Can These Mental Health Benefits Boost Employee Retention?

4 Ways to Support Employee Mental Health

There are numerous ways to improve the mental health of hybrid and remote employees, and companies are increasingly investing in a variety of programs that seek to enhance the employee experience. But here are four relatively easy and inexpensive strategies to try:

1. The 20-20-20 Rule

Despite the flaunted flexibility of the modern workplace, employees are still required to put in reasonable work hours. But that doesn't mean they can't indulge in small bits of distractions every now and then.

The 20-20-20 rule consists in staring at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. Experts say doing this helps refresh the mind and stop monotony, as well as help with eye strain.

Managers may want to encourage their employees to do this regularly, whether in the office or at home.

2. The Right Home Office Setup

Another simple way to check in on how employees are handling remote work is to ensure they have the right tools at their disposal.

Investing in employees' home office setup is one option. Employers can consider purchasing equipment for employees or giving them a budget to purchase qualifying items that are known to impact employee posture positively, such as sit-stand desks or ergonomic chairs.

3. Trust Employees

To make remote work successful, employers need to trust hybrid and remote workers that work is being done. Recent studies show that remote workers can be 47% more productive — not less effective.

So, Kimberley Tyler-Smith, strategy and growth executive from New York-based Resume Worded, said managers may want to create clear boundaries around how they interact with their employees. "They should give their workers space and time to work to accomplish the goals they were hired for," she said.

4. Optimize Office Time

Everyone needs social interaction in some shape or form. In the hybrid workplace, that's easily achieved when staff is in the office. But research by Gallup suggests that hybrid workers — and managers — should make more time for meetings and collaboration when in the office.

While remote work should enable employees to focus more on their independent work, the time spent in the office should complement that by fulfilling social needs and connections.

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