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In their 2022 Work Index Report, Microsoft uncovered a significant shift in how employees balance work and well-being. The majority of respondents stated they are more likely to prioritize well-being over work than they were before the pandemic.

For many workers, this new wellness standard has led to action. Microsoft found that 18% of the workforce quit their jobs in 2021 and that personal well-being and mental health were the most frequently cited motivators among those who left their roles.

Mental health is likely to remain a significant consideration. According to a report from Lyra Health, the prevalence of diagnosable mental health conditions among employees has doubled over the past year. After years of stress, relief is unlikely to come swiftly, even as the world begins to open up. The pandemic will likely leave a permanent mark on employees’ wellness requirements, making mental health a lasting necessity.

 

Mental Health During Return-To-Office Transitions

For many, a transition back to in-person work comes with several obstacles to mental well-being. In a survey from McKinsey & Company, one-third of respondents said their return to work has had a negative impact on their mental health. Moreover, almost half of those who had not yet returned said they anticipate negative mental health impacts. Understanding why and how this happens can help employers meet their workers’ mental health needs and avoid resignations.

 

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by intense and persistent feelings of fear and distress in social settings, impacts over one in 10 U.S. adults.

For many workers, the rise of remote-work arrangements provided a much-needed reprieve from workplace interactions. Outside of the anxiety-inducing social setting of the office, those with social anxiety felt an improved sense of mental well-being and an increase in performance. One employee told the British Broadcasting Network (BBC):

Working from home has provided me with a sense of control that we don’t get to experience in the office. In the office, we don’t have moments of the day where we can check out and tell ourselves it’s OK. Once you sit down at your desk, it’s an entirely different feeling. It’s a pressure that you don’t experience within our homes.

Some experts are concerned that increased levels of social isolation will exacerbate social anxiety symptoms in those who already experience it and initiate the onset of social anxiety in individuals who previously had no related conditions. As Paula Yanes-Lukin, assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute told the New York Times:

As we start to socialize more, we’re going to probably see greater rates of social anxiety than there were before the pandemic.

With intensified symptoms, workers may feel even more reluctant to return to the office.

 

Marginalized Groups

For marginalized or under-represented groups, the office can be a challenging and psychologically dangerous environment to navigate.

Often, these individuals face what are called microaggressions. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a leading scholar on microaggressions and their negative impacts on marginalized groups, states:

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

Microaggressions are experienced in the workplace by a substantial majority of historically disenfranchised groups. For instance, according to research conducted by McKinsey & Company, 76% of LGBTQ+ men and 82% of LGBTQ+ women experience microaggressions at work.

To avoid microaggressions, workers from under-represented groups engage in what is known as code-switching, whereby an individual adjusts their behaviors, speech, or mannerisms to conform to the culture around them. As the Washington Post reports, many workers feel they are able to work better from home, as they can be their authentic selves while avoiding harmful behavior from colleagues.

 

Caregivers

Caregiving responsibilities have risen significantly over the past few years. According to one study, 18% of today’s caregivers were not providing care pre-pandemic.

Remote work provided working caregivers with added flexibility and freedom when fulfilling their caregiving obligations. For many, the return to in-person work means caregiving will become more difficult and stressful as they struggle to find daycare for their children or promptly respond to the needs of loved ones.

McKinsey & Company found that because of the added challenges, parents are nearly 20% more likely to report that a return to on-site work had a negative effect on their mental health.

 

Takeaways

While a return to the workplace may pose mental health challenges, there are several steps organizations can take to mitigate them.

  • Start Slowly: After several years of working from home, employees will need time to adjust to the new schedules. Be sure to implement return-to-worksite plans slowly and in stages. Start with a day or two per week and build from there as necessary.

  • Provide coverage for mental health treatments: All too often, health insurance plans provide incomplete coverage for mental health treatments, putting workers who can’t afford to pay out of pocket at a serious disadvantage.

  • Offer flexibility: Across the board, those struggling with their organization’s return-to-office plans seek the ability to continue to choose where, when, and how they work. While fully remote arrangements may not work as a permanent solution for many companies, employers should seek to provide as much flexibility as they can.

  • Ask for feedback: Strategies for mitigating the obstacles that return-to-office plans present must be tailored toward the specific issues employees are facing. Often, the best way to determine what these needs are is by asking. Send out an anonymous survey to see if your organization’s strategies are working and identify areas in need of additional support.

For more detailed information on how to protect employees’ mental health during return-to-worksite transitions, check out the upcoming webinar on burnout and return-to-work stress with Organizational Well-Being Consultant Chase Sterling.

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