- A mental health crisis. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and a recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General found that loneliness poses a risk to physical health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and a bigger risk than physical inactivity and obesity.
- Remote work’s effect. While there are certainly benefits to offering remote work — namely the flexibility it affords employees — employers that operate in a fully or hybrid remote environment should be mindful of social health and create opportunities for employees to develop, cultivate and maintain social relationships.
- Mitigate burnout and stress. Organizations can do their part by mitigating burnout and stress around administrative functions, such as email management or meetings, as well as help remote employees set boundaries.
- Be mindful of financial stress. Employees can become overwhelmed by financial stress amid economic headwinds. Whether it is worsening symptoms of anxiety or pushing oneself to the point of burnout, employees are not at their best when an employer needs them to be and that has real impacts to the business.
Loneliness and related mental health issues are seriously affecting the U.S. population and, by extension, its workforce. A couple variables — an increase in remote work and economic headwinds — could be exacerbating the situation.
Organizations can help mitigate the problem by putting guardrails in place for remote workers and offering a slew of well-being resources to their entire employee base, experts assert.
The Remote Work Effect
The remote work trend, which comes with its lack of physical and social connection, is not likely to subside in the near term. A survey from Upwork predicts that more than 22% of the American workforce (36.2 million people) will work remotely by 2025. And, according to a survey from AT&T that gauged executive and employee attitudes to COVID-driven hybrid working, 81% think hybrid work (part at home, part in the office) will be the foremost working model by 2024, with 56% of work done offsite.
While there are certainly benefits to offering remote work — namely the flexibility it affords employees — employers that operate in a fully or hybrid remote environment should be mindful of social health and create opportunities for employees to develop, cultivate and maintain social relationships, said Erin Terkoski Young, senior director, health, equity & wellbeing at WTW.
“For some individuals, work may have been a primary place for social interaction,” said Erin Terkoski Young, senior director, health, equity & well-being at WTW. “Social isolation can have negative effects on mental health, exacerbate symptoms of mental health conditions and accelerate physical health conditions.”
A recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General hammered this point home, as it found that loneliness poses a risk to physical health comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and a bigger risk than physical inactivity and obesity. The advisory also noted that the lack of social connection is an independent risk factor for deaths from all causes.
Deb Smolensky, head of well-being and engagement at NFP, an international brokerage firm that offers a benefits consulting practice, said employees who are fully remote are at a significantly higher risk of isolation and separation from the overall mission of the company — even if their work remains at a high level.
“Fully remote positions can have a compounding effect on existing mental health conditions,” she said. “In order to support employees with mental health conditions, robust mental health benefits are critical — beyond just a three-visit EAP model.”
Terkoski Young said organizations can do their part by mitigating burnout and stress around administrative functions, such as email management or meetings, as well as help remote employees set boundaries.
A few initiatives Terkoski Young suggested include:
- Camera-free days/hours
- Meeting free days (e.g., Friday or Monday, typically)
- Blocked lunch hours
- Meeting boundaries, such as 45- or 50-minute time limits.
The Economic Climate Effect
Employees can become overwhelmed by financial stress amid a steady stream of news about mass layoffs, inflationary pressures and high interest rates, Terkoski Young said.
“Fearing job security at risk, employees may push their own personal boundaries and work longer hours to demonstrate commitment or increase productivity,” she said.
Whether it is worsening symptoms of anxiety or pushing oneself to the point of burnout, employees are not at their best when an employer needs them to be and that has real impacts to the business, Terkoski Young added.
Smolensky said there are many complex pressures affecting employees.
“When thinking about how external pressures affect employees at work, it’s important to understand that the brain is always on the lookout for new threats,” said Smolensky.
Smolensky added that, especially in the case of economic pressures, most employees have a frame of reference from a previous economic downturn, such as families or friends who were laid off or lost money in the stock market. In these uncertain circumstances, the brain is in “fight, flight or freeze” mode and can naturally latch onto the worst possible scenario, which can lead to sleepless nights worrying about unlikely scenarios.
Smolensky also noted that mental health is really an umbrella term, which generally refers to mental conditions and is clinical in nature — relating to the cost, quality, accessibility and availability of doctors, practitioners.
Thus, what employers should focus on is addressing mental well-being, which covers all employees because everyone can benefit from implementing strategies to train their brain to function more effectively, she said.
Smolensky said that to foster an environment of collaboration and connection, employers also should recognize the importance of encouraging employees to gather in-person at least on select occasions.
“Office attendance, while not always a boost to productivity, can foster collaboration and creativity through togetherness,” she said, “which ultimately promotes the social and mental well-being of hybrid employees, when compared to completely remote employees.”
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