Remote work and high rates of depression: What HR needs to know

It’s no secret that mental health struggles have skyrocketed in America in recent years. Just last week, U.S. Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania became the latest high-profile example of the crisis, as he checked himself into a treatment center for depression.

Related: The ‘Great Burnout’: Tackling the crisis among HR professionals

It’s a condition that affects millions of Americans every year, and since the start of the pandemic, it could be disproportionately impacting certain segments of the population—who are in need of support from their employer.

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According to new research from the Integrated Benefits Institute, based on a survey of nearly 500,000 employed Americans, symptoms of anxiety or depression have decreased overall since the height of the pandemic in 2020—from 40% to 35% of the sample. However, symptoms today are more prevalent among those not working in an office: 35% for fully in-person workers, 38% for hybrid and 40% for remote workers.

Why the difference? Previous IBI research pointed to a number of causes that could be driving up anxiety and depression among home-based employees, says Director of Research Dr. Candace Nelson. For instance, hybrid and remote workers reported challenges that include constant interruptions throughout the day, a seemingly endless workday, limited time with kids and spouses, and an overall struggle to balance work and family. Many also reported feelings of isolation; about one-third said they feel disconnected from their colleagues.

See also: COVID’s one silver lining: innovation in HR tech

Remote workers aren’t the only ones disparately affected by anxiety and depression. The recent IBI report found rates are also higher among women than men, those under 24, workers with a lower income and LGBTQ individuals.

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How are workers responding to the problem? According to the latest study, Americans are slightly more likely to use prescription medication to treat mental health (22% now, compared to 20% three years ago), yet 14% report that they need, but aren’t getting, counseling help, up from 12%.

That suggests an opportunity for employers to intervene. Among IBI’s recommendations, Nelson advises HR to work with business leaders to improve access to mental healthcare, as well as to structure programs that connect physical and mental healthcare, as “certain health conditions such as diabetes and heart conditions often occur with anxiety and depression,” she notes. She also says employers need to prioritize inclusivity and access to culturally appropriate mental healthcare and confront stigma around workers seeking help for mental health—which requires culture work.

Ultimately, Nelson says, HR should lead their organizations to look at mental health “proactively” and focus on forward-thinking programs that assist employees with overcoming potential day-to-day stressors, particularly among populations like remote and hybrid workers, who could be more at risk.

Fortunately, IBI researchers wrote in the report, employers increasingly recognize the mental health crisis—and the role they can play in helping employees through it.

“Even before the pandemic,” they said, “awareness of mental health challenges in the workforce was rising. Now, due to the effects of social isolation; loneliness; prolonged exposure to stress, fear and worry; and work and financial instability—all caused by the pandemic—investment in mental health strategies is at an all-time high.”

Learn strategies to support employee mental health at the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, May 3-5 in Las Vegas. Click here to register.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].