There’s a massive paradox impacting mental health in today’s workplace – people are more connected than ever through their phones, devices, Zoom, and Slack — yet loneliness and workplace mental health problems (stress, burnout, depression, etc.) continue to worsen. While digital connections are essential for any workplace, they can’t replace “real” human connection as a mental health need.
The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated remote and hybrid work, but has also spurred social isolation and an epidemic of loneliness that has negatively impacted employee mental health. Simple acts like grabbing lunch with a coworker or having social chats before and after in-office meetings can enhance people’s sense of belonging and serve as antidotes to social isolation.
People want to see people: 84% of employees would be motivated to go into the office if they could socialize with coworkers, according to Harvard Business Review. Supporting in-person connection in the office provides so many benefits for productivity and employee experience, but one of its most positive impacts is on mental health.
Why In-Office Connections Matter
People want the scheduling flexibility of hybrid work and the reduction in weekly commute times it brings, but people also want (and need) to connect with others in the office. When Gallup asked U.S. employees how they wanted to work, hybrid was the preferred choice of the majority of workers (51%), with fully remote being the least preferred choice at only 18%. So 82% of employees want some connection to the office.
The younger cohort of employees has experienced more social isolation than older groups. A recent Axios survey asked Gen Z employees (the post-Millennial generation) who work remote-only what they missed most about working in the office: 74% said they missed their workplace community, while 66% said they missed face-to-face feedback from their managers. So having a workplace community and opportunities for face-to-face mentorship matters a great deal to people, especially younger employees.
The absence of workplace connections can contribute to social isolation and worsening mental health for younger and veteran employees alike.
Connection, of course, is only part of a holistic solution for improved employee workplace mental health. Other key components would include:
- Providing sufficient healthcare benefits
- Training managers (and employees) in how to identify potential workplace mental health issues and have conversations about them
- Fostering a workplace culture that supports good mental health (and prevents burnout) by enabling people to pursue their well-being and better balance work and life
How Hybrid Flexibility Supports Better Mental Health
A recent survey from The Conference Board found that scheduling flexibility and more work-life balance were 2 of the top 3 factors workers said would help improve their mental health: 52% of respondents said flexible/hybrid work schedules would help their mental health, while 48% cited the ability to work from home part of the week. The third factor cited was the ability to take a “mental health day” without feeling guilty.
Here are 4 other ways hybrid work helps:
1. People develop healthier habits.
A recent study from the UK-based International Workplace Group, and cited in Fortune, found that people working a hybrid schedule sleep longer and exercise significantly more, both big contributors to improving mental health.
The surveyed hybrid workers exercised 3.4 hours per week before the pandemic and hybrid work, for example, and are now exercising 4.7 hours per week while working a hybrid schedule. They’re also taking more time for better nutrition and hobbies. The time saved by not commuting five days a week can be put back into promoting people’s health and mental well-being.
“There’s no doubt that hybrid working has facilitated some major health benefits for people,” Dr. Sara Kayat of the UK’s National Health Service told Fortune. “Physical activity and good quality sleep are the bedrocks of a healthy lifestyle, and each is more widespread due to the extra time afforded by a hybrid working model.”
2. People can access help when needed.
The flexibility of hybrid work not only helps to proactively reduce mental health issues from arising in the first place (because people have more autonomy to schedule self-care), but also helps people more easily access mental health care when they need it.
Being in the office enables people who may be facing mental health challenges to initiate face-to-face conversations with colleagues, managers, or HR professionals about accessing help – whether necessary time off, healthcare benefits, and/or other treatment options.
Conversely, more flexible schedules mean people have the time they need to go visit mental health professionals or doctors. This makes treatment and prevention more possible for those who are struggling.
3. People can make time for what matters.
When organizations support better work-life balance, employees are freed up to do more of what makes them happy (and are also more “anti-fragile” and productive in the long-run), which could include time with family, more time for kids, more time to pursue hobbies, and beyond. When these “personal” matters are taken care of, people have more focus on work and less distraction.
4. Stress-filled commutes get reduced.
Employees don’t dislike the office (quite the opposite actually, since 73% of employees are more likely to come in if they know their teammates are also in, according to Harvard Business Review), they simply hate stress-filled, long commutes. When commuting time gets reduced via hybrid work, people have more time to be productive and balanced.
Getting Hybrid Right to Help Improve Mental Health: 3 Steps
Companies need to provide the tools, policies and infrastructure to support hybrid work effectively in order to actually support employee mental health and gain the benefits described above.
We know that employees want hybrid work because it offers both scheduling flexibility and opportunities to connect with others in the office. Supporting employee mental health means supporting hybrid work with the right strategies, policies, and tools, including:
1. Defining the purpose of the office.
In a hybrid work setting, organizations must clearly define what the office is for, and make it an attractive and frictionless destination. The top attraction of the office has always been the opportunity to collaborate with others and build community (including, of course, connections that support better mental health).
The office will always be relevant as a locus of connection, collaboration, and value-adding human interactions. The clearer people are about the “why” of the office, the more likely they’ll come in.
2. Enabling people with the right tools.
Organizations must provide people with tools that enable them to better coordinate in-office days with each other, as well as tools that make it easy to reserve and find spaces or desks for in-office collaboration and human interaction.
Few things are worse for an employee’s mental health than an anxiety-filled commute into a largely-empty office where an employee sits alone on Zoom calls all day, then repeats the anxiety-filled commute home.
3. Supporting better employee experiences.
“Workers have been asking for more autonomy, flexibility and ownership over their experience of work,” says Bernard Wong, Senior Manager of Insights & Principal at Mind Share Partners, a non-profit group focusing on workplace mental health. Savvy organizations need to provide that ownership over workplace experience if they want their people to be fully engaged and well. Technology tools help deliver the control workers want while facilitating necessary in-office connection. Better employee experiences are a great antidote to burnout, which often arises from a lack of control over one’s experience.
What’s the solution for creating better experiences in the office? Employers should be viewing the office as a locus for connection, not just by setting up a good space booking and meeting room management systems, but also through offering community-building opportunities like social events, guest speakers, mentoring programs, and more. When people feel they belong to a robust community of others (i.e., “a workplace family”), a sense of connection is enhanced and mental health outcomes improve.
Hitting that “Hybrid Sweet Spot”
About 2 out of 3 (66%) hybrid workers report that their mental health has improved as a result of the shift to hybrid work, according to Psychology Today. Hybrid work seems to sit in that sweet spot between giving people the scheduling flexibility they want (to manage their well-being and work-life balance) and providing them with in-office opportunities for human connection and collaboration.
Hybrid work, as we’ve explained above, may therefore be the best prescription for improving mental health by blending flexibility and human connection. Robin can help manage your entire workplace experience, holistically improving everyone’s well-being. Let's talk about it!