Returning to work: Keys to a psychologically safer workplace

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Erica CoeJenny CordinaKana 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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Employers can potentially reduce stress and anxiety for their workers by considering mental health as part of a holistic on-site return plan.
As the population fully vaccinated against COVID-19 grows, more employers are asking employees to come back into the office. But while some employees may welcome the return to on-site work, one-third of respondents in a new McKinsey survey said their return to work has had a negative impact on their mental health. Almost half of those who have not yet returned anticipate negative mental health impacts.With a workforce already suffering from a notable rise in mental distress from the pandemic, a real risk exists that millions of people will encounter yet another wave of stress and anxiety as they return to the workplace. Pervasive workplace stigma exacerbates this risk, with fewer than one in ten employees describing their workplace as free of stigma on mental or substance-use disorders, leading many to avoid seeking needed care.
Employers who recognize and prioritize psychological safety alongside physical safety in their post-pandemic operations can help employees’ mental health and their own efforts to cultivate inclusive workplaces. This support can have concrete effects on critical workplace outcomes, including employee well-being, satisfaction, productivity, and absenteeism. Employers can take immediate actions to support employees’ safety concerns and need for flexibility in the return to on-site work; over the longer term, they can continue to evolve operating models and workplace culture to support mental health, belonging, and flexible ways of working. While some employers have already begun to take steps, opportunities remain.

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 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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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Erica Coe is a partner in McKinsey’s Atlanta office and co-leads the Center for Societal Benefit through HealthcareJenny Cordina is a partner in the Detroit office and leads McKinsey’s Consumer Health Insights research. Kana Enomoto is a senior expert in the Washington, DC, office and co-leads the Center for Societal Benefit through HealthcareJeris Stueland is an expert associate partner in the Minneapolis office.

The authors would like to thank Casey Gardiner, Eric Bochtler, Alistair Carmichael, Brad Herbig, Ashish Kothari, Mihir Mysore, and Grace Vogelzang for their contributions to this article.

This article was edited by Elizabeth Newman, an executive editor in the Chicago office.


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