The Uplifting Return: How In-person Work Benefits Mental Health and Well-being
Patricio V Marquez
September 26, 2023
“.. We got to get the program of being decent with each other. Life is about decency. Decency is an undeniable term that includes putting your hand on people's backs…all I mean by that is to be there for each other. Bring your hearts and minds for each other to work, and life will be much better...”
President, World Bank Group
First Conversation with Staff, June 8, 2023
In many countries, social distancing measures adopted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the surge of cases, and the rapid rise of hospitalizations and deaths, contributed to a significant increase in the number of people working from home. This was particularly common in high-income countries.
For example, survey data from the United States show that over 60 percent of days were worked from home in May 2020 among employees (mostly those with college degrees and higher incomes) that could perform their job remotely, while many others whose job was not possible to do from home (for example, service workers), either worked almost entirely in person or did not work at all. As the pandemic eased over the next three years due to increased immunity levels from vaccination or previous infections, remote work in the United States dropped to about 25 percent of days, but still five-fold higher that the 5 percent level in 2019.
Comparable data show similar patterns of working from home in Canada and the U.K., less so in western European countries (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Portugal), and significantly lower levels in Asian countries (e.g., South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore). Evidence from a cross-country assessment involving 27 countries as of mid-2021 and early 2022, found that work from home averaged 1.5 days per week in the sample, ranging widely across countries. The same survey showed that employers planned an average of 0.7 work from home per week after the pandemic, while workers wanted 1.7 days.
As the world gradually recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the return to in-person work, albeit under hybrid arrangements, is now a reality for most people. Companies began to call back their employees, offering options such as a mix of days in the office and of days of remote work. In a sense, as noted in a recent article, this is signaling that the era of sitting at work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. is over.
While remote work provided flexibility and safety during the uncertain times brought by the pandemic, it also led to concerns about the negative impact of isolation and loneliness, job loss and financial instability, and illness and grief on mental health and well-being of people. Three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, these concerns persist. For example, findings from a recent KFF/CNN survey in the United States, show that worries about mental health and substance use remain elevated, with 90 percent of adults believing that the country is facing a mental health crisis.
In this blog, I explore the positive impact of returning to in-person work on the mental health and well-being of workers taking into account evidence from several studies.
Workplace Accommodations Are Needed
As highlighted in a McKinsey’s article, many employers have responded with measures to improve worker wellbeing and engagement since employee burnout and attrition came to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic. But, in spite of this effort, the article notes that employees’ unhappiness with the workplace still has not changed or has become worse. For example, in the United States, citing recent research by Gallup, the article indicates that the number of actively disengaged employees is the highest in a decade. Reasons for workers’ dissatisfaction include limited career advancement opportunities, poor leadership, excessive workloads, and lack of connection to the company’s purpose.
In the post-pandemic period, as people transition back to in-person work under hybrid arrangements, workplace accommodations are needed. As observed by some neurologists, after years of remote work, our brains’ selective attention skills and ability to block out distractions at a workplace setting are weakened. Common workplace accommodations may include flexible work arrangements and schedules (e.g., granting autonomy to employees for selecting days of working at home and in-person); modifications and improvements to an employee’s physical work environment; dress code amendments; and leaves of absence. It will also require examination and short-and medium-term changes in workplace culture, practices, and behaviors to address institutional stressors that negatively impact on the mental and physical health and wellbeing of employees.
Accommodation and flexibility to work from home part of the time benefits workers. Accumulated evidence suggests that most workers value the opportunity to work from home part of the week, and some value it a lot. The reasons are clear cut: working from home saves time and money for commuting and grooming, offers greater flexibility in time management, and expands personal freedom. While few people could work from home before the pandemic. many can do so now, benefitting millions of workers and their families, particularly women, people living with children, and workers with longer commutes.
Appropriate accommodations and practices that work both for the organization and the employees, therefore, can help uphold dignity and inclusion in the workplace and contribute to staff wellbeing and satisfaction. Research has shown that when employees are mentally well, they are more focused, creative, efficient, and hence, more productive.
Indeed, theories and research in high-income countries and more recently among firms in an emergent economy setting show that the mental health of employees is an important factor to predict job performance. The research findings also reveal that employees’ work engagement and innovative behavior (e.g., search for ideas for new technologies, processes, and/or products; generation of creative ideas) play a positive mediating role in the relationship between employee mental health and job performance. Poor mental health may lead to absenteeism, burnout, work-family conflict, and low productivity and poses for employees in highly competitive environments a big challenge to improve job performance.
The Human Connection
Human interaction is fundamental to our wellbeing, and the workplace is a significant arena for it. The chats at coffee breaks, lunches with colleagues from different parts of an institution, and face-to-face meetings are more than just work-related interactions: they are vital for our social health. The absence of these interactions while working remotely during the pandemic left many feeling isolated and disconnected. And, young workers in some industries could struggle to be successful if they do not get the opportunity to learn alongside senior colleagues in the office and to tap their tacit knowledge, further hampering their career prospects.
While the return to the office has been a struggle at many organizations, the results of a large-scale survey published by Microsoft in 2022 suggest that leaders and management would do better in promoting the return to in-person work by understanding that people come in for each other to recapture what they miss: the social connection of being with other people. Indeed, the data from the survey show that 84 percent of employees cited connecting with co-workers as their key motivation for working in person, and more than 70 percent said they would go to the office more frequently if they knew their direct team members or work friends would be there. A key message from these findings, therefore, is that organizations that fail to use in-person time to rebuild and strengthen team bonds--that is, to rebuild their social capital--may risk losing out on attracting and retaining top talent.
Remote work, while convenient, brought with it a sense of isolation for many. The absence of colleagues and the monotony of solo workdays left employees feeling lonely and disconnected. Returning to the office can be the antidote to this isolation.
Physical workplaces foster a sense of community and provide opportunities for spontaneous interactions. A quick chat with a co-worker when having coffee can brighten the day, reduce feelings of loneliness, and foster a sense of belonging.
As documented by the CDC, social connectedness also influences our minds, bodies, and behaviors—all of which influence our health and life expectancy. Studies have shown that social interaction can serve as a buffer against stress and as a protective factor against risk for disease, contributing to reduce cumulative physiological damage and improve mental health.
According to a Harvard Business Review article, these connections can even boost morale and increase employee engagement and satisfaction. And, as indicated by the results of a meta-analysis of 339 independent research studies, including the wellbeing of 1,882,131 employees and the performance of 82,248 business units in 230 independent organizations across 49 industries, there is a strong and significant positive correlation between employees' satisfaction with their company and employee productivity and customer loyalty, and a strong negative correlation with staff turnover. Ultimately, these results suggest that higher wellbeing at work is positively correlated with more business-unit profitability.
Establishing a Routine
One often overlooked aspect of in-person work is the routine it provides. When a person commutes to an office, a daily schedule is established that includes structured work hours, regular breaks, and defined boundaries between work and personal life. This routine can be a powerful tool for maintaining mental well-being.
Psychologists often emphasize the importance of routine in promoting mental health. A study, for example, found that routines could help people better manage stress and anxiety. That is, routines provide stability and predictability in our lives, reducing stress and anxiety. Returning to the office can help reestablish this much-needed structure.
Mental Health Support
A physically and mentally healthy workforce is not only vital to the workers’ wellbeing and that of their families, but it is key for the continuous development of human and social capital in the workplace. While employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and hazard-free workplace, they also have abundant opportunities to promote individual physical and mental health, fostering a healthy work environment to reduce health risks and improve the quality of life for employees. This can be achieved by supporting the development of an employee-centered wellness culture in the workplace; providing supportive environments where safety, respect, and equal treatment to all are ensured; codifying work-family balance in the institutional culture; and facilitating access and opportunities for employees to engage in a variety of workplace health and wellness programs. In other words, as observed in a Harvard Business Review article, “the future of workplace mental health demands culture change — with more vulnerability, compassion, and sustainable ways of working”.
Many companies offer wellness programs, counseling services, and support groups to help employees navigate the challenges of daily life. These resources can be invaluable for those struggling with mental health issues, both at the office or when working at home. An international good practice is offered by the World Bank Group, where policies and programs are in place to support individuals’ physical and mental health, including awareness building, prevention, and treatment. The launching of “Better Together: A Mental Health & Well-Being Strategy for the World Bank Group” on May 4, 2022 was a major step forward to improve the organization’s effectiveness by optimizing the health, both mental and physical, and well-being of its staff by defining key areas of intervention to promote an institution-wide culture of health in the workplace. The strategy does this by directly focusing on the institutional drives that shape staff’s mental health and wellbeing that need addressing across the institution (e.g., harassment, bullying, exclusion, racism, homophobia, and gender bias as well as work pressure, heavy workloads, and low or inconsistent levels of recognition).
Knowing that your employer cares about staff well-being and provides the necessary resources can reduce stress and anxiety. It creates an environment where seeking help is not stigmatized but encouraged. Such support systems can make a significant difference in the mental health of employees.
A study done by the World Economic Forum, covering 25 firms with 2 million employees in 125 countries around the world, also found that firms that champion workplace wellness are reaping significant benefits in terms of increased productivity, reduced cost of employee healthcare, and increased employee engagement leading to reduced turnover.
Balancing work and personal life become increasingly challenging under remote work arrangements during the pandemic. The boundaries between professional and personal life often blurred, leading to burnout and stress. A study by global staffing firm Robert Half showed that employees were working around the clock while at home. For example, the data collected indicated that more working parents than professionals without children were typically spending weekends (77% versus 59%) and more than 8 hours a day (55% versus 36%) performing job-related tasks while at home, and more employees ages 25 to 40 than those ages 41 and older said they usually worked weekends (75% versus 62%) and more than 8 hours a day (56% versus 33%).
Returning to the office can help reestablish boundaries. A physical workspace provides a clear separation between work and home. The commute acts as a mental transition, allowing employees to switch between work mode and personal life. This balance is essential for mental well-being and prevents the burnout that can result from the constant blurring of boundaries.
The hybrid work arrangements being adopted by different companies provide ongoing flexibility while allowing employees to experience the benefits of an office: human connection with colleagues or clients, optimally designed workspaces to maximize productivity, more interactions that support career growth, and a greater chance to improve work-life balance. But there are some challenges as well, including having the right tools to be effective working from home, feeling less connected to the organization's culture, impaired collaboration and relationships, and disrupted work processes.
Boosting Productivity and Job Satisfaction
As suggested by data analyzed in a recent study, the productivity of remote work depends critically on the mode: fully remote or hybrid work. While fully remote work can generate larger business cost reductions from space savings and global hiring, making it a popular option for some firms, fully remote work is associated with about 10 percent to 20 percent lower productivity than fully in-person work. Challenges with communicating remotely, even with the latest telecommunications technology, barriers to mentoring and on-the-job learning, building culture, and issues with self-motivation have been identified as factors in reducing productivity of fully remote work. The data in the study also show that hybrid working appears to have positive impacts on productivity. This is due to several factors: (1) workers save about two or three hours each week from less commuting, and some of that time is allocated to working more hours in their current job; and (2) hybrid workers appear to be more productive on their home days because of fewer distractions and quieter home working conditions.
In-person work can contribute to an improved mental state of employees. Companies that have returned to the office have reported higher levels of employee engagement and performance, further emphasizing the positive connection between in-person work and mental well-being. A new study suggests that companies with greater profitability and higher stock market performance tend to have staff who report greater happiness, purpose, and job satisfaction as well as lower stress. This finding support the business case for investors to advocate for, and company executives to focus more on, staff wellbeing.
Nurturing Creativity and Collaboration
Lastly, the physical office space fosters creativity and collaboration, and facilitates face-to-face encounters that can help build more authentic and trustworthy relationships. Brainstorming sessions, impromptu discussions, and team dynamics thrive in a physical workspace. And, as shown in a recent study, face-to-face meetings are 34 times more successful than emails, suggesting the value of the implicit trust conveyed in face-to-face interactions that is lost over email. These interactions can also lead to the development of new ideas and innovations, as shown by the experience of tech giants like Apple, known for its innovative workspaces that encourage employee interaction.
The return to in-person work offers a multitude of benefits for mental health and well-being. It reconnects us with the vital human element, establishes routines, combats isolation, provides access to mental health support, and helps maintain a healthy work-life balance. Moreover, it can help boost productivity and foster creativity and collaboration.
As we move into a post-pandemic period, individuals and employers alike should consider the positive impact of in-person work on mental health and wellbeing. But, during this period, when many employees are still reeling from the negative impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, changes in work arrangements, and severe disruption of daily routines on their mental well-being, it is critical for organizations, senior leadership, and managers to create working environments and practices that facilitate the transition to in-person work and that support the mental health needs of staff.
As employees are the core capital of companies, efforts to support their good mental health and well-being should be seen as a key investment to achieve high organizational performance and enhance the competitiveness and success of companies—their top line.
Image: Photo taken by author at Casa Fernando Pessoa, Lisboa Portugal, September 24,2023