Here is an excerpt from an article written by Erica Coe, Jenny Cordina, Kana Enomoto, and Jeris Stueland for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.
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Safety and flexibility are core concerns for employees and represent key opportunities to support mental health during the on-site return
Employees are mixed in their expectations and experience of the mental health impact of a return on-site, according to the June survey. While some who have not yet shifted back from remote to on-site work expect that their return will have a positive impact on their mental health (19 percent), almost half of respondents (49 percent) anticipate going back will have somewhat or significant negative impacts. Of those who worked remotely during the pandemic and have returned on-site, reported mental health impacts have been mixed: 36 percent of respondents reported negative mental health effects of on-site work, while 37 percent report positive effects (Exhibit).
Consumers who expect going back will have a negative impact on their mental health overwhelmingly attribute it to concern over safety and protection from catching COVID-19, as well as to concerns about scheduling flexibility. These pre-return concerns largely align with the experiences of those employees who have already returned to on-site work. Among those who have experienced negative mental health impacts of returning on-site, the top drivers have been concern about their own safety due to COVID-19 (45 percent) and risk of contracting COVID-19 and transmitting it to unvaccinated or at-risk children and loved ones (29 percent).
As employees return on-site from remote work, they report that COVID-19 safety and flexible work arrangements could help alleviate stress. Among safety interventions, improved air filtration was a core request, with 62 percent of respondents reporting that it could decrease the stress they experienced from returning on-site. Employees also request autonomy in determining when and where work gets done: of those who have returned on-site, a majority report that flexible work schedules (60 percent) and hybrid work arrangements (57 percent) could reduce stress. Overall, in an era characterized by increased demands at work, at home, and in society, the request that employees make most often is more time. Close to two-thirds of employees (62 percent) report that additional time off could alleviate stresses associated with returning to on-site work.
Employees with children at home and those with greater mental health needs are particularly concerned about the mental health impacts of on-site work
People with children in their homes were more likely to report that returning to on-site work had negatively affected their mental health. Forty-four percent of respondents with children reported negative mental health impact, compared with 27 percent of those with no children in the home. Although much of the discussion about the impact of the pandemic on parents has been about the challenge of balancing work and childcare, these respondents said they are also particularly concerned about physical safety for themselves and their families. When surveyed on workplace policies that would alleviate their stress, their top choices were related to safety: mandatory on-site testing for COVID-19 and antibody testing. Work–life balance does continue to be a concern as well, with two-thirds reporting that hybrid models and flexible work schedules could alleviate stress.
Parents will also grapple with how to balance their enduring family priorities and responsibilities with their employers’ new and evolving policies. During the pandemic, 40 percent of mothers and 27 percent of fathers spent an additional three or more hours daily on childcare and housework, per LeanIn.org and McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Report 2020. It is unclear whether families will want to return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person activities and how they will evaluate social interactions if their children have not yet been vaccinated.
As employers have become increasingly aware throughout the pandemic, employees with elevated mental health needs represent a large proportion of the workforce, and their needs will be important to address during the return to on-site work. More than half of survey respondents reported feeling anxious in the past week, and 42 percent reported feeling depressed in the past week. Individuals who reported experiencing depression and/or anxiety in the past week also stated concerns about the effects of on-site work on their mental health. Among those who had returned to on-site work, 46 percent reported that it negatively affected their mental health. These individuals overwhelmingly reported that additional flexibility and benefits could reduce their stress: these benefits may include additional time off, flexible work schedules, and pandemic stipends.
The return to in-person work and socialization for some in mid-2021 represents a major shift in daily experience. Remote work and increased flexibility may have made it easier for some individuals to maintain regular preventive mental and physical healthcare. Working remotely may also afford some individuals greater autonomy over their work environments, creating the opportunity to cultivate physical and social settings that promote health and reduce factors that exacerbate symptoms. Individuals may fear the next chapter of work will mean reduced autonomy and less supportive environments.
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