In his February 2023 State of the Union, President Joe Biden noted that he will not be renewing COVID-19 national and public health emergencies, which expired months later on May 11. Infections and deaths have declined—but certainly not ended—since the early days of the pandemic and as a result many companies are now getting back to “business as usual,” which in some cases means, return to the office.
Over the past three years, many office workers have become accustomed to shortened commute times (bedroom to home office) and the flexibility that comes with working remotely. But as more and more workers return to their cubicles, is their mental health affected?
Well, yes and no.
According to Michael Mazius, PhD, in an article in “Real Simple,” working in the office has one huge advantage over working remotely: social interaction. Many types of workplace situations—whether it’s a conference, workshop, or brainstorming session—simply work better face-to-face, relieving some of the stress that comes from thinking that one is facing a challenge alone. In addition, interacting with others in a positive, non-toxic work environment can be energizing and creatively inspiring.
Those are the mental health pros of returning to the office. The con can be a tendency to slip into a work-life imbalance. Working remotely allowed employees to be flexible to address any mental health issues or other tasks on their own schedule. Meetings were lessened allowing employees to concentrate more on making progress on projects. They were also less likely to be required to take on expanded workloads. And for those who are unfortunate to work in toxic work cultures or companies with poor communication skills, 26% of workers said that working in the office negatively impacted their mental health.
So, what is the solution for return to office policy? Consider a hybrid work style. According to a November 2022 Gallup Survey, 46% of employees reported being engaged when their team determines their own policy of when to come into the office. Forty-one percent of respondents are content to make the decision individually, and just 35% reported being engaged if leadership determines the top-down policy for everyone.
According to a return-to-work guide distributed by Lyra: “Our minds prefer things to be black and white to make decisions easier and reduce cognitive dissonance.,,,[S]taying home indefinitely…carries psychological, social, and economic consequences….[We] don’t have to pick one or the other. Holding these truths together can help us make more thoughtful decisions and recognize that our discomfort in making them is a natural response to this difficult situation.”