Millions of Americans are returning to the office or workplace. But while many of the faces may look familiar, the people themselves have been profoundly changed. Close to 3 years into the pandemic, nearly everyone carries the stress and burden of COVID-19. Most have new expectations about remote vs. in-person work and have adopted a different work-life balance. Many have also experienced acute mental and behavioral health problems.
How should employers respond? With empathy, flexibility and support. And a recognition that returning to the workplace carries its own challenges.
More than one-third (36%) of employees reported negative mental health effects after returning to on-site work, as a recent McKinsey study found. For those who haven’t returned, nearly half (49%) anticipate that doing so will negatively impact their mental health.
New mental health challenges compounded by the turmoil of COVID-19 have “rewritten the rules about how, where, and when we work” writes Christina McCarthy, Executive Director at One Mind at Work in a recent Medium article. “There can be no “back to normal” that disregards employee mental health.”
While most business leaders accept this premise, they are far less clear about solutions. To help workers manage mental health challenges caused by the pandemic, leaders must prioritize effective strategies that promote workplace mental wellbeing. Tactics to support the psychological safety of employees, create environments that welcome mental health conversations, and offer strong support systems are crucial to meeting the demands of the “next normal” in the workplace.
Employers should take immediate action on three fronts:
Share mental health challenges and embrace initiatives. Leaders who are actively involved in prioritizing mental health among employees and creating space for open conversations are positively shaping their work culture. They can also contribute by sharing their own mental health struggles and by endorsing and embracing workplace mental health initiatives. Strong leadership commitment to workplace mental health produces stronger programs, a healthier culture, and better results.
Create a psychologically safe workplace. Employees need space and flexibility to re-adjust to new workplace dynamics. Psychologically safe workplaces are designed to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of employees. Such workplaces contain protective factors that give employees the power to choose “work content” and “work context.” The former ensures employees have a manageable workload and can participate in decision-making. “Work context” respects employee contributions and maintains a culture of equity and fairness. Psychologically safe environments predict “quality improvements, learning behavior, and productivity” according to Harvard Business professor Dr. Amy Edmondson.
Leave no one behind. Key to the successful utilization of these strategies is tailoring them to be inclusive, particularly for LGBTQIA+, BIPOC and neurodiverse employees. For LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC employees, employers can create inclusive workplaces that are safe and informed, integrate culturally responsive care and offer diverse provider networks in employee mental health benefits. Neurodiverse employees and their mental health needs must be embedded in DE&I strategies while addressing stigma, stereotypes, and prejudice. Companies prioritizing neurodiversity have increased retention and twice the net income of their industry peers, according to recent studies.
As employees come closer to a sense of normalcy, organizational leaders must remember this is not the same workforce. New expectations, new needs, and new efforts by employees advocating for themselves are shaping the return-to-work culture. To meet these changes, leaders should be sharing mental health struggles, providing resources, raising awareness, and embracing mental health initiatives. Supporting employee mental health will define the “next normal.”