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Why Leaders Must Prioritize Employees’ Mental Health During the Back-to-Work Transition

publishedabout 1 year ago
6 min read

By now, we’re all well-aware of the negative effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on people’s mental health and emotional well-being. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms in 2019.

It’s easy to assume that these mental health issues will start to disappear (or at least return to their pre-pandemic levels) now that things are returning to normal. However, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s true that people feel safer, they’re spending time with friends and family again, and some stressors around caretaking duties have been alleviated as childcare centers and schools reopen.

But although the overall outlook feels positive and some employees are looking forward to working in an office again, any new change is always going to be stressful for people. In fact, there are multiple reasons why mental health will continue to be a key issue that employers need to prioritize in the wake of COVID-19—or they’ll risk falling behind during this critical time period.

Let’s look at how workers’ mental health will be affected as they return to the office, and the high costs that organizations will pay if they don’t take steps to address this issue. We’ll also examine what leaders can do to create an environment of psychological safety for their people as they enter this next chapter.

Evolving mental health concerns

First, it’s important to recognize that mental health was a pressing workplace issue long before the pandemic. In a 2019 study about mental health in the workplace, 60% of employees reported experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition during the previous year. We also have to acknowledge that the effects of the stressors that emerged during the pandemic—overwork, isolation, and fear of COVID-19, to name a few—will linger for some time.

However, the return-to-work transition brings with it a whole host of new considerations. Employees heading back to their workplace are likely to have a wide range of concerns, including how often they’ll need to go into work, what level of control they’ll have over their schedule, what the new office experience will be like (and how safe it will be), how they’ll navigate the social environment at work after a year of isolation, and who will take care of kids, pets, or parents. In addition, concerns around burnout and overwork are certain to carry over into the post-pandemic workplace.

A recent FlexJobs study found that overall, workers are most concerned about COVID-19 exposure/infection (49%), closely followed by having less work flexibility (46%) and less work-life balance (43%). However, working parents have unique considerations: 49% cite child care as a concern, 48% worry they will have less flexibility, 46% are concerned they will have less work-life balance, 32% fear a lack of health and safety measures, and 31% want to avoid office politics and distractions.

Research confirms that these concerns are manifesting as serious mental health issues. Two-thirds (66%) of employees say they have anxiety about returning to the workplace. And women, who often bear the brunt of running the home or handling caretaking duties, have been even more affected in recent months. While female workers had seen remarkable mental health improvements since January, recent data shows that this trend is already reversing. Total Brain’s Mental Health Index found that since March, women have experienced a 33% increase in feelings of anxiety, a 25% increase in stress, and a 23% increase in depressed mood.

The high costs of not addressing mental health at work

While some companies have taken steps to support their workforce through telehealth, EAPs, mental health days, and other offerings, more than half of employees do not think their organization has done enough to address mental health issues. If businesses continue to avoid this issue during the back-to-work transition, the direct and indirect costs will be significant.

In the U.S., the CDC has estimated that depression alone causes 200 million lost workdays each year and costs employers up to $44 billion. However, poor mental health also predicts the incidence of serious and expensive medical conditions such as diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. So it’s not just about reducing the short-term costs of mental health disorders, which are already considerable—companies also have to recognize that poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic physical conditions.

There’s also the high cost of presenteeism, or working while ill. While physical health conditions are widely known to contribute to presenteeism, research led by Johns Hopkins University Senior Scientist Ron Goetzel, PhD, reveals that “presenteeism costs for psychiatric illness are higher than those for physical illnesses in most cases.” In fact, two studies in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimate that depression sets U.S. employers back some $35 billion a year in reduced performance at work.

From a retention standpoint, recent research finds that nearly two-thirds (63%) of employees say they have left a job in the past or would like to leave their current job because it is not good for their mental wellbeing. As I’ve written about before, burnout is the #1 reason people say they want to leave their job post-COVID. Meanwhile, a survey from FlexJobs revealed that 58% of workers would “absolutely” look for a new job if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely in their current position.

5 steps to prioritize employees’ mental health during the back-to-work transition

Given the potentially enormous impacts of poor mental health at work, it’s clear that employers should double down on their efforts to address this in the coming months. Here are 5 ways to approach this, with a focus on the unique issues stemming from the back-to-work time period and transition:

  1. Listen to employees and acknowledge their concerns. Like I emphasized at the beginning of this article, it’s easy to assume that all workers are looking forward to returning to the office. While some employees feel optimistic, for many people (especially working parents) there are concerns and new challenges that lie ahead. It’s important that business leaders communicate an understanding of the struggles that people are facing during this time. Managers should encourage their teams to be open about how they’re feeling, and they should also have 1:1 meetings with employees where they listen to each individual’s concerns.
  2. Continue to increase mental health offerings, and empower workers to use these. There’s no question that mental health came to the forefront during the pandemic, and in fact, most consider this a blessing in disguise. However, there’s clearly still room for improvement, and now is certainly not the time to put the brakes on expanding workplace mental health support. In addition, despite some progress, there’s still a widespread stigma about mental health, especially in certain industries and roles (e.g., among senior leaders). Companies and their leaders need to create psychologically safe environments where employees feel they can share their struggles and seek out treatment without fear of judgement or negative repercussions.
  3. Foster a culture of self-care. While mental health treatment is important, employers also need to focus on preventive measures, including self-care. But just like mental health, there are misconceptions around self-care. Some people think it isn’t aligned with the “ideal” employee—someone who is hard-working and ambitious—while for others it conjures up an image of candles around a hot bath (not everyone’s cup of tea!). Not only do leaders need to convey the importance of self-care to their teams, they also need to lead by example. This could be as simple as telling your team that you’re taking a mental health day (and sharing the benefits you enjoyed), and encouraging workers to share how they approach self-care.
  4. Give workers as much control as possible. One of the silver linings of the pandemic was that employees who began working remotely enjoyed greater flexibility than ever before. Many people benefited from having extra free time, more time with family, and the ability to take breaks whenever they wanted to. As I mentioned earlier, people are understandably concerned about giving up this autonomy when they return to the office. With this in mind, employers should consider options that allow workers to have some level of control over where and when they work—for example, offering hybrid arrangements or flexible scheduling.
  5. Remain vigilant about workplace health and safety protocols. It’s expected that people are going to have varying levels of comfort around returning to the office. Some workers may not be vaccinated, others may be concerned about transmitting the virus to an unvaccinated family member, and some may be worried about the effectiveness of the vaccine against new strains of the virus. It’s critical that employees who are the most anxious about this feel that their company supports them. Organizations should set clear expectations for the precautions they expect employees to take—erring toward being more rather than less cautious—and reinforce that any requirements put in place are mandatory and not just suggestions.

Staying the course

With all of the unknowns that lie ahead, it’s critical that companies make employees’ mental health a top priority during the back-to-work transition. The issue can be approached from many angles, from communication and culture to safety-related policies and flexible work arrangements. But no matter the approach, the benefits are clear—addressing mental health will help your employees make a smoother transition back to work, it will prevent them from leaving your company, and it will lower your healthcare and presenteeism costs. And at a more fundamental level, helping your people achieve better well-being is simply the right thing to do.