If so, you are in the minority.

Summer is here, the vaccination rate is increasing, and the restrictions on health security are being lifted a little more. It is as if all people begin to breathe and live again. What can not be happy? Everything is fine now, right? Will we ever go back to “normalcy”? It’s not that simple.

I remember, at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was asking: “when will we return to the office”? Most of them were not mentally or physically ready to work full time from home 5 days a week. Like we had to go back. Now that we’re finally thinking about the end of COVID-19 and have spent the last year and a half at home, the story and aspirations have changed… a complete 180 degree change! According to recent surveys in Canada and the United States, nearly 80% of employees do not want to return to work in person after the coronavirus in their corporate offices. (1) At least not 5 days a week, maybe 3. (2)

Whether or not the pandemic has traumatized some workers, the thought of an imminent return to a “normal” physical workplace can have a different mental impact on each person. Regardless, surveys show that 72% of workers say that working from home makes them feel less stressed. (3) We can safely assume that the anxiety level of the majority has increased as organizations have communicated their in-office turnaround plan and expectations.

Let’s dig deeper into this important stress dilemma for the workforce and organizations. In particular, views on productivity, working hours and engagement are inconsistent between employees and employers. I’ll draw parallels with several personal returns to the office after going through mental health challenges and recoveries, which in many ways are comparable to what most workers are facing right now.

Why do people not want to go back to the office?

According to surveys, the main reasons for not wanting to return to the office are:

Why do some people want to go back?

  • Despite the time saved from commuting and increased flexibility, longer workdays and heavier workloads have become a reality for many workers, making it more stressful and difficult to disconnect from home. (9)

But what about the employer’s point of view?

According to recent surveys, employers responded:

Despite this fairly low percentage, employers and employees have opposing views on productivity and working hours during the pandemic. From an employee’s perspective (which I understand), this discrepancy has been a point of high stress and frustration. Multiple surveys11,12,13 have reported that between half and three-quarters of workers are paying a “COVID tax,” meaning they are working longer hours (including nights and weekends for some) than before the pandemic. In addition, employees felt more productive with an increase in the quality of their work. (14,15,16,17)

Preservation of corporate culture is an important argument in favor of returning to the office. Idea generation, innovation development, rapid corridor conversations, communication level and team spirit are also elements that can usually be maximized by face-to-face interaction.

Here’s what I learned

After going through psychological struggles, I returned to the office several times. I feel that the COVID-19 pandemic requires 1) having to accept a situation that is beyond my control, 2) adapt to it, 3) change my perceptions and behaviors towards it, and 4) spend more time at home.

My first experience was after burnout, after 10 years of severe depression, and more recently when I started my own business. In each scenario, I returned to work positively changed, but without so many questions, fears, anxieties, new needs, and hopes. Here are my main observations:

  • I had time to get to know myself better and to think about my life, work and readjust my priorities

  • I have worked hard (and should continue to do so) to become a better version of myself.

  • I asked anxiously:

    • How will my employer support me? (part-time/gradual return, flexible schedule, reduced workload or additional resources, other means to support me?)

    • How can I take care of myself? (eg time for psychotherapy, practicing my mental health tools and practicing my strategies)

    • How will I be perceived by my boss, colleagues and the organization? (mainly with the existing stigma around mental health in the workplace)

      • Are my promotion chances gone now?

      • Will I still be trusted to perform important duties?

      • Will I be perceived as weak, sick or disabled?

    • Who can I talk to and trust if I need support?

When I came back, not only did I have to reorganize and adapt my daily schedule (family, work, food, housework, meditation, exercise…), get used to taking off work twice a day and completely refresh my work, but also “re-“- study corporate/office life (red tape, gossip, egos, social, non-verbal cues…). On the plus side, it was nice to see and interact with my colleagues, vendors and customers. Same for my sense of belonging. I made sure to communicate my needs to my boss, propose a plan, and demonstrate that I can be reliable, productive, flexible, and performant without having to divulge details. This was important as I often do progressive returns and also work from home. What was the result? After returning to various jobs, I rated Expectations Consistently Exceeding in my year-end review.

Where to go from here…

It will be interesting to see how the perspectives, needs and desires of both employees and employers evolve as the days and weeks pass (hopefully for the better).

Returning to the office after the pandemic brings a unique opportunity to share our “age” among our colleagues, including our bosses. This means that we have all shared the same experience of struggle, uncertainty and fear created by this global crisis. From business owners to CEOs, managers, employees, we have all been affected by Covid-19 to varying degrees, but at the same time, with the same limitations. So let’s open up to each other and take this unique chance to reset. Use this pandemic as an opportunity to bring us closer, to create more empathy, unity and understanding. A chance to become a better person at work and in our personal lives.

Good luck to those returning to the office. I leave you with food for information and ideas to help you maintain your mental health at work during this transition.

If you’re an employee considering returning to the office, you may want to…

– Communicate your needs, concerns and ideas openly

– Be open to testing and self-evaluating the proposed turnaround plan
– Show more flexibility, at least in the first weeks of the return
– Practice self-care, such as breathing, taking mindfulness breaks, and practicing self-compassion
– Take advantage of mental health support and resources offered by your employer

– Remember that you always have choice and control over your perspective and behavior

“Employees are looking for companies that put their well-being and experience first. . . [and] they want the ability to choose where they work. . . and have the power to control their schedules.” (19)

“The majority of respondents (96 percent) believe in a company culture that promotes mental and/or physical well-being. When asked what factors play a role in building and maintaining a good company culture, 71 percent of respondents felt leadership was most important, while 43 percent cited flexible work environments and schedules.” (20)

“The majority of workers surveyed (58 percent) want a hybrid work arrangement that allows them to work from home or in the office once the pandemic is over.”21

“Almost half of respondents would look for another role that would allow them to work remotely. About 35 percent of respondents agreed with this statement: “If my superiors told me to go back to the office, I would start looking for another job where I could work from home”22.

If you’re an employer who wants to support returning workers, you can:

  • Make your return plans and expectations clear

  • Be open to comments, feedback, needs and ideas (internal inquiry?)

  • Be flexible, at least for the first few weeks of your return

  • Be transparent, honest and trust your employees

  • Provide robust mental health support, resources and programs (eg ERG – Employee Resource Groups)

  • Assess and honestly ask: Is our corporate culture a human experience? If not, why? What is our plan to change and sustain it?

“While a small percentage of the workforce disclosed their disability to their employers before the pandemic, there may be an increase in the number of employees disclosing their disability as we all return to work outside of our offices. This increase in disclosures will mean that any return to the office program will also require the accommodation and support of these workers. (23)

“Leading employers have moved away from thinking about how to pay for and manage their programs, to asking how their programs can treat the employees who need them ‘humanely’. “The programs you get and the way you deliver them are completely different” (24).

“Introducing more mental health support into their benefits programs, including training for managers to recognize the early signs of mental health problems.” (25)

“All employer respondents said mental health issues were the top concern for employees related to the pandemic, followed by the impact of child care and elder care support (80 percent) and physical health issues (59 percent).”(26)

“If remote work is here to stay, employers need to ensure they create a corporate culture that promotes physical and mental well-being and offers greater flexibility in their employees’ work.” (27)

“Since some employees are traumatized during the pandemic, it’s a good idea for employers to have resources available to leaders on how to identify people who are potentially struggling and how to talk about those observations. Treatment, counseling and support to de-stigmatize are essential. The coronavirus crisis has been difficult for many workers, and normalizing anxious or difficult feelings will help them get the help they need.” (28)

“Employers should allow self-determination in returning to the workplace. As employees likely rearrange their work-from-home days around their home lives, it will be important to be flexible about the start and end of the workday, or to allow employees to continue to work from home for at least part of the work week. in the beginning.” (29)

2020-2021 survey sources used for this article:

  • 1,5,14,22 Leger and Canadian Studies Association

  • 2,3,4,6,7,8,15,27 Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics

  • 9,11,16,24 ADP Inc. and the Angus Reid Institute

  • 10,12,17,18,26 Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts

  • 13 Robert Half Poll

  • 19,20,21 Citrix Systems Inc

  • 23 Nathan Friedman, FastCompany: Workplace Evolution, 6-16-21

  • 25 Mercer’s latest global trends report

  • 28,29 Canadian benefits

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