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Take a Slow Transition Back to the Office to Alleviate Mental Health Concerns


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miodrag ignjatovic / iStock

Vaccine rollouts and the lifting of pandemic-induced restrictions are encouraging many employers to bring their workers back into the office. But as much as we’ve all longed for a return to some semblance of normal, this seemingly positive transition is now adding to the stress most of us have endured for more than a year.

Enforced isolation and people’s fear of the coronavirus have wrought a myriad of mental health challenges, such as increased anxiety and depression. In fact, a June 2020 survey conducted by the CDC found that the number of people reporting anxiety symptoms tripled from 2019 to 2020, and depression symptoms quadrupled during the pandemic. Plus, 40% of United States adults reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse. An April 2021 survey by HR software company Limeade found that 100% of formerly onsite employees were anxious about returning to the workplace, with COVID-19 exposure, less flexibility and commutes reported as high sources of stress.

This data suggests that switching back to a communal workspace could actually trigger an uptick in mental health issues and substance abuse among our nation’s workers. Considering the sharp rise in mental health symptoms in 2020, as well as the CDC reporting overdose deaths in the United States topped 87,000 in 2020, up from 70,630 in 2019 — the largest single-year percentage increase in 20 years — employers need to understand their employees’ health and well-being concerns. Now more than ever, employers should take steps to support their employees through a return-to-work transition.

Employer Response

Employers should consider easing into a return to the office by starting with a combination of in-person and remote work. Gradual transitions can provide employees time to not only come to terms with the change, but also allows them room to restructure their lives again. Whether it’s arranging after-school child care and finding pet sitters for recently acquired furry family members or relearning how to juggle life and work commitments around a daily commute, time for an adjustment will be greatly appreciated. 

An important part of a gradual transition is providing employees a detailed timeline and clear procedures on what changes will occur and when they will occur. People tend to insert their fears into any given situation when they are lacking information. Without specifics, they might fear their jobs are on the line if they don’t readily and wholeheartedly return to working in the office. The list of potential fears is limited only by your employees’ imaginations.

Leverage Flexibility When Possible
These past 18 months have proven that employees can be productive at home, so let them continue to use flex time when needed. If you haven’t instituted a flex time practice yet, there are different ways to approach it. For example, before bringing employees back into the workplace, ask them about any personal responsibilities that they need to attend to during the normal workday — especially ones that might not have existed pre-pandemic. Work with each employee to come up with an individual plan that meets their needs and those of the business.

If managing dozens of individual work plans isn’t feasible, consider creating categories of flex-time options. For instance, you could create one plan for parents of young school children, one for those working multiple jobs and another for those with elder care obligations.

Ease Access to Resources
Well-being programs have a long-standing reputation for supporting employees who are struggling with numerous health and life issues, including stress that could stem from returning to the workplace. The key is to make your organization’s resources easily accessible to everyone across your enterprise.

Work with your benefits vendors to provide employees with resources and wellness education materials in new hire and open enrollment packets. Provide all returning employees with a “welcome back” kit that includes communication from senior management acknowledging the stress they might be dealing with along with links to helpful resources. Furnish your workers with apps and other online tools to help them navigate health and well-being challenges with just a click or two — ranging from how to leverage their health insurance benefits to tips for improving sleep or coping with stress.

It’s well documented that acute and sustained stress can lead to serious health risks, such as substance abuse and relapse among those in recovery. While transitioning back to the workplace, many employers might not realize they can play an important, practical role in helping employees prevent substance abuse in themselves or their loved ones.

For example, according to a study from JAMA Surgery, 70% of opioids prescribed for post-surgical pain management go unused, making them easily available for abuse. To curb this threat, employers can work with their insurers or other vendors to offer alternative pain management programs. These approaches can provide plan participants with a variety of options to treat pain without the use of addictive opioids and reduce the probability of future expenses for addiction treatment.

In addition, employers can help their employees take unused pain medications out of circulation by providing a simple disposal option in the workplace. Rather than encouraging workers to flush their unused prescriptions down the toilet or toss them in the trash (both harmful to the environment and, if found, opens up the possibility for misuse), consider distributing drug deactivation pouches manufactured specifically for scientifically proven, safe, at-home drug disposal.

The added benefit to employers is that — combined with an employee education and communications program around safe drug storage and disposal — these efforts can help companies save as much as 25 cents per member per month in health plan costs by reducing claims associated with opioid use disorder.

Another practical step is to make employee communication and education programs about drug abuse and addiction readily available through a variety of enterprise-wide channels. Quality, low-cost program templates and resources such as videos, presentations and infographics are available through the National Safety Council.

Destigmatize Mental Health and Addiction

If you don’t yet have them, now is the time to establish corporate policies focused on supporting good mental health and drug abuse prevention in the workplace. These policies shouldn’t be punitive, rather they should be designed to empower managers and supervisors to stay in better touch with their direct reports.

Effective policies can provide supervisor training and education on how to properly approach employees whom they suspect may be struggling. Policies should also clearly outline when and how to lead an employee to services (such as a wellness vendor, EAP or telemedicine) when drug testing might be needed and/or administered and every employee’s role in maintaining a safe workplace.

If creating policies and practices around mental health issues seems too daunting to tackle, consider bringing in outside resources such as an insurance broker to assist.

Of course, policies are only as effective as an organization’s leadership. Destigmatizing mental health issues must start at the top and be shared throughout the entire organization. Be sure to work with the appropriate executives to establish and instill a corporate value statement that destigmatizes mental health and supports addiction prevention and treatment.

Returning to the workplace should be a welcome step forward in the journey to normalcy. However, it comes with added risks to your employees’ mental and physical health. Savvy employers who pave the path back to the office with tools and resources to support workers’ well-being will reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce, better employee retention and, potentially, reduced health care costs — all of which paints a brighter picture in the days ahead.

About the Author

Allison Brown is a founder and board member at Health e(fx) and market consultant for Deterra System