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  • Steve Nguyen, PhD

Employee Mental Health and the Return to In-Person Workplaces

Updated: Aug 24, 2022

I was contacted by a communications specialist for my thoughts regarding people who might be experiencing anxiety about having to go back to in-person workplaces. I am reposting my responses below.

Question: How do you think the mental health of individuals may have changed in two years of working from home?

Answer: There’s no question that the mental health of employees has changed as a result of working remotely, due to the COVID pandemic. Being isolated and working in isolation from others have added to the loneliness epidemic. Although not everyone is “alone,” especially if they work and live with others in the same house or apartment, there can certainly still be feelings of loneliness. The other thing is that we’re now more socially awkward in greeting one another, in holding a conversation, and in maintaining relationships due to lack of in-person contacts with one another over the past two years. It’s strange to say this, but people are now unsure how to act around other human beings.

Despite all the positives and advantages, much of what’s required in remote working is interacting via video (i.e., video calls and meetings). Studies have found that requiring and having to participate in too many video meetings are mentally and emotionally taxing on the human mind and body.

What’s more, experts contend that humans are social creatures, and we function better when we are around other people. Indeed, it’s been argued that our human need to physically connect with one other is as strong and as fundamental as our need for food and water.

Question: How may these changes affect returning to work post pandemic?

Answer: I think there’s a fascinating interplay between the COVID pandemic’s forced-to-work-remotely experiment and the current strong U.S. labor market that puts American workers in the driver seat.

There’s an interesting talk on a new podcast called As We Work (with host Tess Vigeland) by the Wall Street Journal. In an episode titled, “Hybrid Work, the Big Quit, C-Suite Empathy: Pandemic Changes at Work” with WSJ Life & Work coverage chief Nikki Waller and WSJ business reporter Chip Cutterthat say there are various reasons why workers do not want to return to the physical office workspace, and one of the main reasons is simply because they just don’t want to.

There’s now a sense of power on the part of workers due to this current hot labor market (with more openings than there are applicants), and employees know they can get away with wanting more. In addition, many people have spent the past two years working remotely and not going out (due to COVID). As a result, some workers have money saved up so there’s not that (usual) fear of not having a job or getting a paycheck.

We can see this play out with more workers demanding more from their companies and organizations struggling to hire or retain their employees if they aren’t able to meet some of the demands or expectations of their employees.

Question: Why do you think people are feeling anxious about returning to the office?

Answer: I think much of it is that people have settled into their routine of working remotely and this return to the office will no doubt disrupt this work routine and cause uncertainty in what employees thought or felt was finally something they had finally gotten accustomed to. For example, for some employees, their routines during the past two years were juggling working remotely while also providing child and/or senior care. So, part of what’s anxious for them is to now find ways to secure child and/or senior care for their children and/or elderly parents.

Related to the topics of childcare and senior care is that women typically carry this responsibility and working remotely had provided a bit of respite from the logistics of having to navigate commuting to and from work with childcare. The return to the office mandate will disrupt the routines and schedules that these caregivers had created and grew accustomed to.

Question: What are some tips for overcoming this type of anxiety?

Answer: In my opinion, the onus should not be on the individual employees to figure this out on their own. If we place the burden of having employees learn to figure out what’s anxiety-producing and come up with their own solutions, then we will have learned nothing from these past two years.

The key is for employers and organizations to change and adjust to better helping their workforce adapt to a very VUCA world (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). Companies need to talk to and partner with their employees to figure out what’s need and how to move forward.

That said, it is still critical that employees communicate with their supervisors and leaders about what might be causing anxiety for them and co-create action plans to either avoid anxiety-provoking scenarios or lessen the impact of when anxiety-causing events or situations arise.

Question: How can individuals adapt to the changes the pandemic brought to the workplaces?

Answer: Some ways to adapt to changes are to take an internal locus of control perspective, be happy and look for positives, and adopt a growth mindset. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe their behaviors are guided by their personal decisions and efforts and they have control over those things they can change and let go of things that are beyond their control. Research has shown that happy employees have about 31% higher productivity, 37% higher sales, and three times higher creativity! The more good and positive things we can spot and reflect on, the more good and positive things we will see and experience. Finally, according to Carol Dweck, individuals who believe their talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and input from others have a growth mindset. Thus, to sum up, when we believe in an internal locus of control, when we seek out the positives, and when we adopt a growth mindset we’ll be in a much better position to deal with the constant and disruptive changes that come our way!

Question: How should people seek work/life balance after another shift in how they do their jobs?

Answer: This notion of work/life balance is so elusive. It’s like looking for Big Foot or finding a unicorn. I think it might be more helpful to think more along the lines of work/life integration. There’s no right formula and it’s different for each person. I think the COVID pandemic has shown us that there isn’t really (and there truly never was) a work/life balance. During the past two years, many of us have had to work in the same places that we lived, that is we worked out of our homes or apartments and the lines between work and home life were frequently blurry, with work creeping into and overtaking much of our lives.

As we move forward, in 2022, in this strange new world of work and life uncertainty, each one of us will need to reassess and recalibrate our own priorities, whether that is mental/emotional health & well-being, or prioritizing family and time outside of work to be with our family members, whatever these priorities are and how we rank them will determine how (and to what extent) we integrate our work into our lives or our lives into our work.

Question: What should employees expect from their employers during this transition?

Answer: Employees (thanks to the current hot job market) are now in the driver seat and many have been quite vocal in letting companies know that they expect organizations to adjust to and make remote, hybrid, or in-office work more equitable. We’ve seen employees push back against corporate mandates requiring them to come back into the office with many knowledge workers and tech employees demanding to be able to continue to work remotely. At the same time, there’s also been a movement to make pay/salary more transparent by sharing pay ranges in the advertised job positions.

Employees are no longer satisfied with some of the typical office perks that companies had touted in the past (e.g., gym, free food, foosball tables, etc.) and are demanding more services related to mental health & well-being (e.g., counseling, mental health days off, etc.) and career development (e.g., coaching, learning, employee training & development, etc.).

Question: Are there any other insights that you would like to share?

Answer: My hope is for companies and employers to not only better understand remote or hybrid equity (making work more equitable and inclusive), but more importantly, to implement and incorporate some of these lessons into improving the working conditions and working locations/requirements for their employees.

As organizational leaders, let us apply the painful yet helpful insights and lessons learned, from these past two years of working remotely, to bettering the lives of our employees. After all, no matter what businesses we are in or what services we provide, it is our employees that make it possible for our organizations to not only survive but thrive.

Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D. Organizational & Leadership Development Leader



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