As we move beyond the first anniversary of the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccination rates are increasing each day, and many individuals are beginning to resume their normal daily activities. Employers have also started to consider their return to a pre-pandemic workplace and what that means for their employee’s health and well-being.
The New Workplace
Most employers agree that some degree of workplace location flexibility is vital to retain top performers, but for many, the question remains: to what extent? Some HR leaders are waiting to see what types of return-to-work strategies other high-profile organizations implement before crafting their own plans. Microsoft, Salesforce, and Google have recently announced hybrid models with a blend of remote and in-office employee presence, which will undoubtedly influence other employers who can facilitate a similar arrangement.
What Employees Want
According to an April Gallup COVID-19 Tracking Poll, 51% of all U.S. workers perform their job at least part of the time remotely. If given a choice, 35% would like to continue working remotely as much as possible, and 17% would prefer to return to the office (48% are not working remotely). Of the 35% who would like to continue working remotely, 5% expressed fears related to contracting COVID-19 in the office. The remaining group would like to continue working remotely because they enjoy the lack of commute, increased schedule flexibility, and other remote work perks.
Employee Mental Health Challenges
Regardless of which choice employers make – whether it’s calling employees back to resume onsite work, adopting a hybrid remote/onsite approach, or embracing a 100% virtual workplace for some or all employees – each strategy carries mental well-being considerations. Since the start of the pandemic, reports of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse have skyrocketed to record numbers. A December 2020 U.S. Census Bureau survey found that 42% of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. In 2019, that number was 11%. Experts speculate that this troubling wave of mental health concerns is caused by job loss, fear of COVID infection, loneliness from isolation, and disruption in childcare, among other uncertainties related to the pandemic.
Creative Strategies to Help Promote Employee Mental Well-being
HR business leaders should prepare to mitigate any potential mental health disruption during workplace transitions by continuing to encourage a healthy work-life balance, eliminating uncertainty, and facilitating healthy workplace relationships. Below are some strategies and creative solutions that you may consider adopting at your workplace:
- Help employees achieve work-life balance. We’ve all heard the term “work-life balance” more times than we can count. It is a coveted goal of most, especially those with families and other valued hobbies outside of work. But, what does it actually mean? Quite literally, the term implies that individuals spend equal time fulfilling their obligations (“work”) and equal time doing things they enjoy (“life”). Too much of any one thing can be detrimental, and people should strive for a healthy balance between things like family time, work time, leisure time, learning, socializing, and physical exercise. Employers need to understand what that balance looks like for each employee and support their journey to achieve that balance. Some companies have adopted creative solutions to facilitate organization-wide work-life balance. Some examples include a mandatory email “blackout,” where employees are prohibited from emailing during non-work hours, or a “flex hour” where employees are encouraged to take an hour during the workday (aside from the lunch hour) to exercise, read, tend to personal errands, or any activity of their choice.
- Reduce loneliness. According to Cigna’s 2020 Loneliness Index, 61% of adults surveyed reported feeling lonely, a seven percent increase from 2018. Lonely workers have a higher rate of absenteeism and self-reported lower quality of work. Studies have shown that employees who have a “work best friend” are less likely to feel lonely in general and are more likely to stay with their employer. Employees who continue to telework also benefit from having a close work friend, even if their conversations occur virtually. To facilitate friendships at your workplace, consider implementing a buddy program where employees with similar interests are paired up and meet (either virtually or in person) at regular intervals. Virtual team lunches, happy hours, and team-building exercises also help employees make social connections.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate! Unclear expectations and uncertainty about impending changes often cause anxiety in employees. Employers who are planning to alter employee work schedules or location changes should communicate early and often. Managers should check in with their employees, listen to their concerns, and be prepared to answer tough questions about work arrangements like, “Why can Jane continue to work remotely, but I can’t?” or “Will I be safe from contracting COVID at the office?” Managers must also be prepared to address ADA accommodation and leave options for employees who experience trouble performing their job due to a mental impairment like anxiety or depression. Leaders should model honesty and vulnerability to facilitate more meaningful conversations with direct reports by expressing their own feelings. Employees who feel heard and are involved in a discussion about returning to the office are more likely to accept the outcome.
- Make the office fun, but be mindful of those who can’t join in person. Offices are beginning to buzz with activity again as employees filter back from working remotely. Employers should take advantage of the times employees are in the office whenever possible by scheduling team meetings, training, and social events. However, they should also consider those who can’t join in person and add a virtual option for joining. Employees will be making that dreaded commute again, so help them feel excited about coming into the office.
Mental health is equally as important as one’s physical health. As the COVID-19 pandemic comes to a close and employers are defining their new normal, they should also consider the mental well-being of their employees.
If you’d like Archbright’s help with employee or leadership training, check out Archbright University courses like Safety and Wellness for the Home Office, Communicating for Leadership Success, or Management Academy. Additionally, our HR Consultants can partner with you to define, implement, and communicate a return to work strategy that’s right for your workplace. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.