Workplace Wellbeing

Returning to the Office? Here's How to Reduce Stress and Support Mental Health.

After three years of working remotely, employees are being asked to return to the office–whether they’re ready or not. Understandably, there’s a lot of pushback, with employees citing mental health as a main concern.

Written by
photo authr
Dave Fisse
Clinically reviewed by
photo authr
Man with glasses and a blue button down shirt talking with his colleague

Jump to section

    After many employees have worked remotely for over three years, they’re being asked to return to the office—whether they’re ready or not. This is being met with strong resistance, with employees citing mental health as a primary reason. 

    A McKinsey survey backs this up. It found that one in three employees who had just returned to the office said the shift from remote or hybrid schedules negatively impacted their mental health. It also found that employees experiencing a decline in their mental health were five times more likely to have a reduction in responsibility at work. 

    The executive-employee disconnect

    Executive-level decision-makers are justifying new return-to-office policies by calling out a drop in productivity levels, innovation, and creativity from remote workforces. 

    Disney CEO Bob Iger mandated that his employees return to the office four days a week, contending that “in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe, and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors.”

    The Future Forum by Slack surveyed more than 10,000 workers globally about the rise of return-to-work policies and discovered an “executive-employee disconnect,” which illuminates a stark contrast between what’s best for the company and what’s best for the worker.

    The survey found the following disparity in attitudes on transitioning from remote work schedules back to the office:

    1. Three-quarters of all executives report they want to work from the office three to five days a week—compared with about one-third of employees.
    2. Among executives who have primarily worked fully remote over the last three years, 44% say they wanted to come back to the office every day. Just 17% of employees want the same.

    Understanding the risk of stress, anxiety, and resistance

    Inflexible approaches by executives, inspired by the traditional (and out-of-date) corporate top-down power structure, are producing all-too-predictable consequences. 

    Millions of employees in the U.S. who have been forced back into the office are experiencing elevated levels of stress and anxiety, which can trigger mental health disorders. 

    Employers trying to reassert a level of control over their workforce—choosing to dismiss or ignore this emerging trend line—also risk alienating their employees and seeing morale plummet.

    The unavoidable fact is that COVID-19 challenged many people’s sense of control. Just the thought of returning to the office after three years of working remotely is encumbering workers with trepidation and uncertainty.

    Keeping the mental health impact in mind 

    If your organization is considering or in the process of requiring remote employees to return to the office, it’s critical to approach the transition thoughtfully, acknowledging and addressing the potential impact on mental health. 

    Employees who have grown accustomed to the freedom, flexibility, and lowered risk of exposure to COVID-19, enjoyed while working remotely, are experiencing sharp elevations in stress and anxiety levels. 

    A mandated return to the office is inherently difficult to navigate for most people, who are forced to quickly readjust to the challenges of pre-pandemic routines, such as long commutes, child care, and interaction with co-workers after three years at home.  

    The McKinsey survey cited above bears this out. So does a similar survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, in which 41% of workers required to return to the office say the amount of stress they experience has increased. 

    Even employees who remained in the office throughout the pandemic confirm the negative impacts on their mental health—with 50% saying their level of stress has worsened.

    Moving toward a holistic workplace model

    The real cost of untreated mental illness in the workplace is jarring. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) estimates that mental illness left untreated can cost the national economy upwards of $300 billion annually, when factoring in the impacts on productivity, absenteeism, employee turnover, and increases in medical and disability expenses.

    We know that increased levels of stress and anxiety trigger mental health conditions, such as depression. 

    Reducing stress and anxiety for employees—while fostering a healthy workplace culture—can be achieved by planning and prioritizing mental health resources and support in a holistic workplace model. The foundation of this model starts with being cognizant of how the past three years have impacted employee mental health.

    While it’s all too easy to focus attention and resources solely on the logistics of re-integrating employees back into the office, it’s essential for executives and HR leaders to meaningfully engage and listen to each of them. 

    Addressing employee concerns can cultivate a workforce that is happier, healthier, and more productive—while those who refuse to listen and adapt risk losing valuable contributors to the business.

    5 ways to support employee mental health during a return-to-office initiative

    There are several proven best practices and evidence-based approaches that can help ensure better mental health outcomes during a return-to-office initiative, including:

    1. Leading with empathy and understanding of the range of emotions employees are feeling, as well as the personal and professional challenges employees are facing.
    2. Normalizing communication about mental health challenges, related to new policies and unfamiliar environments. This can help reduce some of the uncertainty or anxiety employees may feel during this stressful time. Replacing negative attitudes and discriminatory policies with healthier attitudes and policies can also improve employees' sense of wellbeing.
    3. Soliciting honest input and feedback, either through in-person meetings or anonymous surveys. The return-to-work plan for your workforce will be more successful and well-informed if you can gain a deeper understanding of your employees’ needs and concerns.
    4. Provide an easy-to-understand business rationale for the return-to-work timeline. It can be easier for employees to accept corporate policy decisions when they learn the thought processes that are factored into them.
    5. If your organization doesn’t already offer an innovative Employee Assistance Program (EAP), consider implementing one—to offer all your employees fast access to the mental health support they need.

    The meaningful benefits of a flexible work schedule

    Employers that can offer any flexibility with a hybrid work model are going to benefit from the freedom and sense of control afforded their employees. In the same vein, small gestures go a long way. One example is allowing employees with greater anxiety to gradually transition back to the office with half days or shorter weeks.

    A flexible or hybrid work schedule that enables employees to work from home is another highly effective strategy. According to this survey, 34% of workers say flexible hours would improve their mental health. 

    Research has long supported providing employees with a certain degree of control over their work environments. An individual’s sense of autonomy has been shown to increase motivation and performance.

    Flexible or unlimited PTO allows employees to take needed time away from work to focus on their mental health, and avoid or reduce burnout. This can promote better work-life balance, increase job satisfaction and employee engagement, and lower the costs associated with commuting to the office on a daily basis.

    Prioritizing the mental health of your transitioning workforce

    Regardless of whether your organization can accommodate a flexible or hybrid work model, consider offering expanded access to personalized mental healthcare.  

    This can remove the guesswork from mental healthcare and provide the support your transitioning workforce needs, cultivating a reinvigorated workplace environment that brings out the best in your employees.

    Here are three more ways to foster workplace wellbeing and elevate connection at your organization.

    About the Author
    photo authr
    Dave Fisse

    A proud Pacific Northwest native, Dave lives in Los Angeles where the abundance of sunshine fuels his creativity. The University of Oregon School of Journalism provided the foundation for his 15-year career as a copywriter and storyteller. Dave is passionate about advocating for men's mental health, spending quality time with his wife and three-year-old, and watching Oregon Ducks football in the Fall.

    About the clinical reviewer
    photo authr

    Stay connected to the latest in mental health!

    Our newsletter delivers expert insights, personal stories, and practical strategies straight to your inbox. Join us to better support your team’s mental health.