Doctors are lining up to warn U.S. and U.K. business leaders that they face a “well-being crisis” if they fail to improve the mental health support for employees returning to the office.
While people’s mental health has suffered in general over the past two years, the return to office is adding some new stressors to the mix. Employers must respond in kind, and actively listen to staff in order to provide the right support, or they’ll risk a backlash, say health experts.
A Slack-commissioned study of 1,000 knowledge workers in the U.K., launched in May which is Mental Health Awareness month, revealed that 73% of employees have experienced exhaustion in the last year. And almost half (49%) of respondents who said they feel stressed, worried or anxious about going to the office, highlight associated costs with office working, such as travel and food, as stressors — at a time when 87% of British adults are reporting a rise in their cost of living, according to the Office for National Statistics.
“Businesses must take action to avoid a well-being crisis as workers return to offices,” said Dr. Sara Kayat, a doctor for the U.K.’s National Health Service, who assisted with the Slack research. “Transparent communication and responding to feedback from their workers is key. Hybrid working, facilitated by technology, can also help employees and businesses build healthier workplaces, empowering teams to work flexibly while maintaining the human connections we all need to flourish.”
Putting on a brave face
But are employers aware of the extent of the looming problem, with so many people suffering in silence? And is a lack of transparency and communication about well-being policies aggravating the issue? Indeed, it’s telling that across the U.S., Google searches for “can I take a mental health day from work?” surged by 1,300% between February 2020 and February 2022, and “how to ask for a mental health day” grew by 1,000% in the same period, according to data from SEO platform Semrush.
Research published in February by Lime Global, an insurance company, indicated that 75% of U.K. workers feel like they have to put a brave face on at work in front of their colleagues. Alarmingly, this was up from 51% compared to May 2021.
“Ongoing cost of living concerns and burnout at work are fuelling a ‘pleasanteeism’ epidemic,” said Lime Global CEO and founder Shaun Williams, referring to the pressure employees face to hide feelings of stress and anxiety. “There is an opportunity for employers to look at flexible working in a balanced fashion, examining the positives and negatives for both parties, to find a way of empowering employees to be at their best, safeguarding their well-being and safeguarding productivity.”
Brendan Street, head of charity at U.K. healthcare charity Nuffield Health, agrees that the employee experience has evolved significantly since the start of the coronavirus crisis, and a recalibration is now required as businesses firm-up their hybrid working policies. “As individuals head back to the office, we’re seeing a return of ‘work-from-home guilt’: the worry that remote working appears unproductive and lazy, with employees overworking as a result,” he said.
Another unhealthy habit associated with hybrid working is what Street calls “bedmin”: doing admin work in bed. “Employees are now often working right up until bedtime, blurring the boundaries of what we use our bedrooms for and leading to poor quality sleep,” he added.
Tips to improve employee well-being
Lime Global’s findings tally with Nuffield Health’s newly published 2022 Healthier Nation Index results. Of the 8,000 U.K. adults surveyed, 66% would not feel comfortable raising a mental or emotional well-being issue with their employer. Further, one-third are currently offered no physical or emotional well-being support while at work.
“The pandemic has affected the mental health of many employees, so it’s more important than ever that employers find ways to create inclusive and connected workplace environments where people feel supported,” said Gosia Bowling, national lead for emotional well-being at Nuffield Health. “Not only will this help productivity, but it will also boost happiness levels.”
The saying “a happy worker is a productive worker” has never been more appropriate. At the heart of workplace happiness, according to Bowling, is interacting with colleagues about non-work subjects. She encourages people to “find 5 with 5.” She explained: “Individuals should spend a dedicated five minutes of well-being focus with five other people to encourage building connections with others, creating a more inclusive workplace.”
Gosia suggested that this activity include nominating an individual to lead five minutes of group guided breathing, sharing personal wins each day over an instant messaging platform, or even hosting mini instructor-led fitness circuits each week.
Listen to understand the ‘why’
Jill Hughes, executive sponsor for mental health for management consultancy Accenture in the U.K. and Ireland, believes mental health support needs to be embedded within an organization’s culture so that it’s regarded as table stakes rather than a perk. She pointed to research that indicates 46% of employees would look to move jobs if their employers didn’t provide enough mental health support.
“When it comes to improving mental health, it’s impossible to solve the ‘how’ without understanding the ‘why,’” Hughes said. “Whether it’s about the erosion of boundaries between home and work or the impact of loneliness in a remote environment, it’s important to open up conversations with people. A good leader will ask, and truly listen.”
As an example, at Accenture regular mental health pulse surveys are carried out to “improve our understanding about the mental well-being of our people and where they need help,” added Hughes.
Cape Town-based Ashley Lourens, head of well-being and a therapist at Plumm, a global platform for accessible and affordable online mental well-being, knows first-hand the importance of having an approachable employer, having experienced burnout herself. She described it as “a combination of exhaustion, depression, and anxiety, simply waking up with dread of the mountain of work that awaits you and feeling like you’ll never finish it all.”
She escalated the issue to her line manager and boss. “I explained what I was going through, that the level of work was unrealistic, and they made changes to accommodate and allow me to have a lighter workload so I could work more effectively,” she added.