Workplace Wellbeing

Return to Work Stress: How to Support Employees and Transform Workplaces

As employers re-open their offices, it’s imperative to consider the stress of returning and adapt to the changing needs of employees. Prioritizing mental health is one of those ways, along with offering supportive, flexible policies for a smooth transition back to work.

Written by
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Jess Maynard
Clinically reviewed by
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    After two years of unprecedented disruption to social patterns around work and daily living, people are slowly adjusting to a new normal and restarting in-person office work. But it’s not possible to simply return to the way things were. Collective social structures around everything from work to social justice and mental health have evolved profoundly during this period of change. Due, in part, to the upheaval, workers are grappling more than ever with anxiety, stress, depression, substance abuse, and burnout. Employees need a lot of support as they transition from the relative calm and autonomy of their own living spaces back to a more rigid and structured office environment. In a report from McKinsey, “one out of every three employees surveyed said their return to the workplace had a negative impact on their mental health, citing feelings of anxiety, depression, or general distress…Nearly 40% of workers would consider quitting if forced to return to their offices full-time, many of them younger workers.”

    Many employees are no longer willing to spend 40 plus hours a week in an office environment where their mental health and wellbeing are not respected. When combined with the stress of returning to the office, there’s a definite potential for challenges that HR leaders can help address. When the world changes, we can either choose to rebuild society in the same way that it existed previously, or we can choose to rebuild by a different set of values— values that revolve around taking employee mental health seriously.

    As employers design return to office plans, there’s an opportunity to restructure office environments to be more supportive of mental health, which is imperative during a time of mass resignations.

    Return to work challenges 

    Employees bring their entire selves and identities with them when they walk through the office door, and returning to the office isn’t going to affect every individual in the same way.

    People with marginalized identities and neurodiverse brains are more likely to struggle with stress, anxiety, depression, and overall mental health. These groups were also hit harder during the pandemic, particularly in the areas of access to general medical treatment, health outcomes, wage disparities, and lack of access to mental health resources. Transitioning back to in-person work may therefore prove to be an added burden—especially if they’re returning from a relatively peaceful work-from-home environment, where they have some control over their daily schedule, stress levels, and environment. HR leaders should be especially aware of how employees in these populations are dealing with additional challenges while returning to the office. There’s a clear pattern in which vulnerable and marginalized populations are disproportionately affected whenever there’s society-wide disruption or upheaval. 

    How can HR leaders ease the transition? 

    During this time of restructuring, HR departments can take the lead in two areas related to supporting employees: 

    • Easing worker’s transition back to the office while mitigating accompanying stress and more generally
    • Advocating for and implementing policy to make the workplace a healthier and more supportive environment for mental health

    None of these recommendations are singular, cure-all solutions. They are meant to be part of an array of policy changes, support networks, and office culture changes as workers deal with returning to the office stress.

    Restructuring how, when, and where employees work

    In a complex and dynamic world, we need to create policies that can adapt to changing circumstances. 

    According to the recent Future Forum Pulse survey of 10,737 knowledge workers, “Nearly seven in 10 (68%) respondents said hybrid is their preferred work environment. But most workers also want flexibility in not just where they work but when. While 78% of all survey respondents say they want location flexibility, nearly all (95%) want schedule flexibility.” There may be times when a physical meeting of minds is necessary to work out a particularly knotty problem or for brainstorming creative ways of doing business. At the same time, working in an office environment for 40 hours a week or more can also be detrimental to employee autonomy and mental health. The good news is that the pandemic has created opportunities for new technologies and structures for hybrid work to emerge. The systems are already in place to allow employees more flexibility and autonomy in where and when they work. Allowing employees some schedule flexibility gives them autonomy for how they structure their days and lives. The rigidity of a 9-5 schedule, combined with the limitations of only working in one office location, does not allow much freedom for people to juggle care work or other responsibilities, along with a full-time job.

    With workers leaving jobs in record numbers, it’s time to recognize that people need autonomy in how work fits into their lives.

    Comprehensive and accessible mental health support

    The past few years have highlighted the fact that many barriers still exist to accessing quality mental health support. In some cases, it takes months to see a therapist, and even if help is found, it might not be covered through insurance. During times of mental health crises or severe stress, people can’t wait months to access care—it’s needed immediately. For employees, this becomes even more important as they move back to the office and deal with higher levels of stress. 

    Here are a few ways HR leaders can help:

    • Provide easily accessible mental health resources and pathways for care
    • Make mental health check-ins a regular part of the work week
    • Schedule mental health days, allowing employees the autonomy to prioritize their wellbeing

    Centering mental health

    The workplace has traditionally been viewed as a location where mental health concerns are neither relevant nor appropriate for discussion. The pandemic has helped us realize that mental health is a paramount concern for all humans, in all aspects of life. There is no distinction between mental health and work. In fact, work is a place where mental health concerns need to be integrated into the day-to-day workings of the office. Workplaces are made up of people who cannot check their mental health at the door.

    How to create space for ongoing conversation around mental health:

    • Address, center, and normalize mental health in the workplace. 
    • Give employees the space to share their experiences and needs in a non-judgemental setting, including both team/group sharing and individual opportunities with supervisors. This should be a practice of ongoing and regular conversations.
    • Make employees feel heard and cared about regarding returning to the office stress.

    Creating work/life boundaries that leaders respect and model

    It must become commonplace to set boundaries for all employees around not contacting people or expecting responsiveness during off hours or vacations. It’s imperative that employees have time to be “off”. When workers feel the need to be thinking or stressing about work all the time, or know they might be contacted in off hours about work, burnout and stress increase. Supervisors may push “always available” models in order to increase productivity, but in reality, they are creating an environment where burnout and quitting are more likely.

    Contain scope creep

    During the pandemic and subsequent mass resignation of workers, more employees are taking on wider roles within their companies without it being discussed or planned for, which is creating further stress, burnout, and resignations. Shifting back to being in the office is an opportunity to have supervisors address and define people’s roles, and invite feedback for how they are handling their workload. This can be implemented during individual or group feedback time and is most effective when it becomes a regular occurrence. It can be a two-way street with continual adjustments, so employees feel heard and less burnt out while also ensuring that goals are met. 

    Suggestions for containing scope creep:

    • Conduct audits regarding roles, done in concert with employee feedback.
    • Connect role definition conversations with group and individual feedback time. This can be part of a regular and ongoing conversation between teams and their leaders about how each individual is doing with their responsibilities.
    • Ongoing, open communication is the bottom line.

    An opportunity for workplace transformation

    At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive for productivity goals to give employees more mental health days, allow greater flexibility with schedules, and permit employees to have more of a voice about their roles. But losing employees due to burnout and return to work stress is a barrier to growth that companies across many industries are facing.

    Employers are going to have to get creative to help with stress, burnout, and the Great Resignation. The need for workplaces to be spaces where people’s mental health is respected and return to work stress is addressed has never been greater.

    Read this blog next to learn more about why workplace mental health matters.

    About the Author
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    Jess Maynard

    Jess is a seasoned writer who has completed graduate work in women’s studies. She also works at a domestic violence shelter facilitating support groups for children and teens. Jess follows her curiosity devoutly and is committed to using her accumulated knowledge and life experiences to articulate facets of being human.

    About the clinical reviewer
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