The Return to Office movement is causing a mental health crisis. This is why.

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The great return to the office – hailed as the elixir for the flagging economy and panacea for the woes of remote working – is slowly revealing an unforeseen dark side. Beneath the glint of the office’s glass walls, an insidious plague lurks quietly: a mental health crisis. Think of it as a silent workplace apocalypse — one where zombies don’t gnaw at your physical being, but where stress, anxiety, and burnout gnaw at your peace of mind.

Declining Mental Health: The Invisible Struggle

The silent alarm bells started ringing at the findings of a recent study by The Conference Board. It’s like a disturbing bedtime story for CEOs, the monster under the corporate bed that refuses to be ignored. About 34% of employees admitted to experiencing lower levels of mental health compared to just six months ago. And if this wasn’t alarming enough, 37% reported a decrease in their level of engagement and sense of belonging, paradoxically combined with the fact that they were working harder than ever.

This trend is stronger among Millennials, where 43% report reduced engagement, more than 38% of Gen X and 34% of Baby Boomers. Consequently, 40% of millennials reported performing only what is expected of them or less – what is known as quitting silently. This withdrawal raises the critical question: Does declining mental health make employees less engaged in their work, or vice versa?

Think for a moment about an artist who was once passionate and inspired, but now feels a detached disconnect from her muse. The canvas, once vibrant and animated, now appears hauntingly desolate. Such is the case when an employee’s connection to their organization’s mission and purpose diminishes.

And the return to the office seems to be the main blame. A whopping 52% of survey participants preferred flexible/hybrid work schedules as a way to manage their mental health issues. And another form of flexibility, being able to take “no work” PTO days without guilt would be 55% valuable in helping their mental health. That finding is consistent with the results of surveys and focus groups I host when I help customers transition to one return to the office in a flexible hybrid work regulation.

The relationship between mental health and workload

The relationship between declining mental health and work pressure further reinforces these concerns. 48% of workers reporting impaired mental health work more than 50 hours a week. Half of Millennials reported that their workload was detrimental to their mental health, more than 48% of Gen X and 40% of Baby Boomers.

Factors such as poor communication in the workplace, inability to balance personal and work life, and time spent in meetings exacerbate these effects. A toxic work culture also takes its toll, with 26% of employees claiming it negatively impacts their mental health.

Related: Entrepreneurs struggle with mental illness. Here are 5 ways to manage your mental health as an

Mental health care: a declining trend?

Unfortunately, employee mental health and wellness support programs appear to be on a downward trend. Available emotional wellness programs fell from 88% to 62% within a year, and financial wellness initiatives showed a similar decline from 76% to 52%. Physical wellness programs also fell from 74% to 54%. Despite their availability, these programs are underused: emotional well-being programs are used by only 22% of those who have access to them.

The plot thickens as we delve into the restraint surrounding mental health discussions. The survey reveals a surprising fact: about 38% of employees feel like they’re walking on eggshells when talking to their managers about their mental health. It’s like playing a high stakes game of charades where no one can decipher your clues and the consequences are all too real.

Cornered, workers have resorted to clandestine methods to deal with their mental health issues. The survey found that 13% of employees took “unofficial mental health days”, 19% chose sick days, and 18% put on a brave face despite their internal struggles. It’s like putting on a mask every day, a facade that hides the inner turmoil.

Cognitive biases: invisible puppeteers in the workplace

Our minds are like overworked office interns, constantly juggling and processing massive amounts of information. In this constant frenzy, cognitive shortcuts, or prejudices, come into play. They help us navigate complex decisions quickly, but sometimes lead us astraythat cause distortions in our perception, thinking and decision-making.

The status quo bias is the human tendency to prefer the current state of affairs, which leads to resistance to change. In the workplace, this bias can manifest itself in the persistence of traditional, inflexible work arrangements, despite evidence showing their detrimental effect on workers’ mental health.

Employers may overlook the findings of The Conference Board’s study because of the status quo bias. It’s like holding on to an old, stuttering fax machine while a high-speed email system waits patiently on the sidelines. However comfortable the current situation may be, not growing with the times has its pitfalls. In this case, it leads to the devaluation of employees’ mental health and well-being, decreasing engagement and productivity levels.

The empathy gap refers to our inability to understand our own or others’ emotional states from another emotional state. In the current scenario, this bias could lead to a misunderstanding of workers’ mental health issues.

Imagine trying to make sense of the frigid cold of the Arctic while basking in Bali’s tropical sun; difficult, isn’t it? That’s exactly how the empathy gap works. Managers who have never struggled with mental health issues may find it challenging to understand their employees’ struggles.

This cognitive blind spot could explain why 38% of employees feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health with their managers. It’s like trying to explain the concept of color to someone who has been colorblind since birth.

This gap may also explain why mental health programs are not being used. If the designers of these programs have never had mental health problems, they might not create programs that truly address the needs of those who do.

Essentially, the office is our mental orchestra, and these biases are the untuned instruments. By recognizing and addressing them, we can finally begin to hear the symphony as it was meant to be played. It is high time we aligned and harmonized our workplaces with tones of empathy, understanding and flexibility.

Related: We need a real commitment to workplace mental health. Here’s how (and why).

Conclusion: the future of work is here

Employers have an opportunity to address the escalating mental health crisis. By adjusting workplace standards, embracing flexibility and prioritizing mental health, we can create a healthier work environment. By adapting workplace standards and embracing flexibility, companies can retain their diverse talents and ensure that their workforce reflects the wealth of society. It’s like baking a multi-flavored cake: each ingredient adds its unique flavor, contributing to the delicious final product. As we strive to reflect society within our organizations, flexible work arrangements and mental health awareness will be the yeast that ensures our work culture can handle this opportunity. This isn’t just about ticking boxes; it is about understanding that a sound mind is the greatest treasure you can find. It’s time we started digging for it in our workplaces.