Where mental health fits in your return-to-office strategizing

As mask and vaccine mandates lift across the country, more employers each day are formalizing return-to-office plans. But for many, after more than two years away from regular in-person work—and in light of the ongoing stresses of the pandemic—returning to the office should not be business as usual.

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A new report from The Conference Board finds that while employees are largely confident about safely returning to the office—82% are OK with working in person now, up 11 percentage points from three months ago—concerns about their mental health are ongoing.

And it’s no wonder, as scores of research have found employees have been putting in longer hours and dealing with unprecedented levels of stress and burnout during the pandemic. According to The Conference Board survey—of 1,300 predominantly desk workers based in the U.S.—more than half of survey participants said they’re working more hours each week, while more than one-third are taking fewer vacation days.

More than 40% of respondents said their mental health decreased during the pandemic while burnout levels increased—and 38% cited lower engagement at work.

What’s more, nearly 60% of survey participants said the integration of their personal and professional lives has increased in the last two-plus years, which worries nearly half (47%) of respondents.

As employers start bringing workers back into offices, are they going to continue to expect workers to be “always on,” working those extra hours—and how will they mesh their home and work lives?

These are questions employers need to be answering now if they want to be proactive about supporting their employees’ mental health and wellbeing—which, for many, is somewhat of a deviation from before the pandemic, says Rebecca Ray, executive vice president, Human Capital, The Conference Board.

“Before COVID, many employers were just beginning to see the importance of supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their workers,” Ray says. “But amid the health, social and economic crises of the last two years, supporting worker mental health became a priority.”

See also: 5 things to look forward to at the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference

Ellen Kelsay, president and CEO of the Business Group on Health, agrees that the importance of employee wellbeing has been “amplified” during the pandemic. And, as we wade into a new phase of the pandemic, she expects more employers to continue to recognize the need for their support.

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Many are already following through. According to a new study from Business Group on Health and Fidelity, 91% of employers surveyed plan to make mental health an integral component of their return-to-office strategy. Sixty percent said they will center physical safety in their plan, and 57% will prioritize work/life balance.

“As employers develop return-to-office strategies and try to attract and retain new employees, wellbeing’s role will be realigned with the ‘new’ ways of working,” Kelsay says.

For many, that involves hybrid work. According to the Fidelity/BGH survey, 60% of those surveyed are moving ahead with a hybrid working model.

Related: Hybrid work is presenting HR leaders with a major conundrum

However, The Conference Board found that splitting employees’ time between the office and home doesn’t seem to impact the concerns they have about their wellbeing and mental health: More than 40% of hybrid workers remain concerned about work/life boundaries and nearly as many worry about lacking connection with colleagues.

Given that, Ray suggests HR and business leaders look to the shared realization they’ve likely had over the last two years: “Businesses around the globe recognized that their most important resource was their people—and they were struggling.

“Now, as we face yet another shift in how and where we work,” she says, “employers will need to truly embrace that lesson—workers will need support and understanding as they redraw the boundaries of their work and personal lives.”

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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 hreletters@lrp.com.