Roughly 1 in 3 workers back in the workplace said the return-to-office shift negatively impacted their mental health, according to a June McKinsey survey of 1,602 employed people.
Workers who experienced declines in their mental health were five times more likely to report taking on reduced responsibility at work. Meanwhile, another 1 in 3 workers said going back to an office had a positive impact on their mental health, with the primary benefit being they feel more engaged upon their return.
But negative responses to return-to-work plans, along with a now rising number of Covid cases due to the contagious delta variant, are complicating employers' plans to bring workers back to the office in the fall.
And leaders will need to work quickly to address the rising challenges of their returned workforce and support those who are expected to come back soon: nearly half of workers still remote but scheduled to return anticipate negative mental health impacts associated with the transition, such as anxiety and depression, the McKinsey report finds.
The biggest concerns
Workers are most concerned for their physical health and safety when returning to the office, as well as losing a sense of autonomy gained while working remotely during the pandemic.
The two concerns are felt among both those who've returned and those anticipating their return, says Jeris Stueland, a senior associate partner at McKinsey and co-author of the report.
Workers want to know whether the office is physically safe to return to, for example if the building has improved its ventilation and air quality, or if shared spaces are being deep-cleaned more often. They're also concerned about getting infected with the virus and transmitting it to at-risk family members at home.
Parents and caregivers of children are more likely to be stressed about their return. Some 44% of parents back in the workplace say their return negatively impacted their mental health — compared with 27% of people without children — because they worry being in public could increase their chances of contracting the virus and spreading it to children at home who are too young to be vaccinated.
Meanwhile, researchers have cautioned that returning to a physical workplace can increase burnout, which can show up in three main ways: exhaustion (a depletion of mental or physical resources), cynical detachment (a depletion of social connectedness) and a reduced sense of efficacy (a depletion of value for yourself).
What could reduce stress
Stressed-out workers say additional time off, flexible work schedules and hybrid work arrangements would help them feel more supported in their return-to-office transition.
Authors of the McKinsey report also recommend employers address workers' concerns about safety and flexibility directly.
On the health and safety front, the McKinsey researchers say leaders can require regular Covid or antibody testing, social distancing and mask wearing. If they share a building with other employers, they also need to know what other organizations are doing in the workplace and share those details with employees transparently, Stueland adds. In recent weeks, more employers have started to require workers show proof of vaccination, or be subject to regular testing, in order to return to the office.
Instead of mandating a blanket return, McKinsey researchers recommend employers create flexible and hybrid work options and let employees figure out what will work best for them, with the expectation that they can adjust as needed during the pandemic and beyond.
On-site accommodations will have to change, too, Stueland says, such as providing more backup child-care options for working parents, better hybrid-work technology to manage teams, or on-site mental health providers and time to make use of them.
Return-to-work raises concerns of equity
Leaders should also be thinking how their return-to-work plans impact diversity, equity and inclusion.
Stueland says employees who opt in to a voluntary return to the workplace are more likely to be younger men who don't have children.
"Then you have a concern of equity," Stueuland says. "Now we have a group back in the office every day, but how do we ensure they're including employees still at home? Are people who are back going to adopt new practices or leave people at home behind?"
The McKinsey report also showed parents are more likely to experience stress and concern about whether taking advantage of flexible or hybrid work could negatively impact their careers.
But a blanket remote-only workplace may not be a win for equity either, Stueland says, particularly among people who live in smaller spaces and lack quiet or privacy at home and would benefit from returning to a formal workplace.
Role of leaders to model new expectations
A crucial piece of employee support will come down to whether leaders model the right behaviors and set realistic expectations, Stueland says. For example, if a workplace offers a hybrid schedule to encourage better work-life balance, managers can show they value the flexibility by opting into it, too.
Employees who see this in their leaders are more likely to feel comfortable opting into the accommodation, Stueland says: "If you're doing something but not modeling or tracking the outcomes, it's a lot less effective."
Stueland points to the tight U.S. labor market, where there are more open jobs than people to fill them, as another reason to quickly prioritize employee wellbeing during a return-to-work period.
"As an employer you have to consider, 'what is my employee not going to like about this workplace, and how do I attract new ones?'" Stueland says. "Right now, the labor market is in a position of employees being able to ask for a little more, and employers will have to figure out how to give it to them."
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