In addition to being a Forbes.com contributor, I am a psychotherapist in Asheville, North Carolina. Most mental health clinicians like myself have migrated to working virtually due to the coronavirus. Now that I no longer work in my office across town, virtual therapy sessions have saved commute time as well as offered other advantages. I don’t feel as rushed to get out the door, and have been able to deliver mental health services without having to cancel appointments due to inclement weather or when three of my clients tested positive for Covid-19. But many remote workers tell a different story, citing mental health pros and cons since starting to work from home, which has been a call to arms for business leaders.
New Study Describes Company Culture Shift
It’s been nearly eight months since the Covid-19 pandemic started impacting the U.S. and plunging employees into a prolonged period of remote work. There are advantages and disadvantages, but the sudden transition brought on by the pandemic made the adjustment difficult for many employees and companies.
The future of work has changed for all of us in both positive and negative ways. A new study by Stoneside surveyed over 1,000 remote employees to learn what companies are doing to help with morale for those working from home. Overall, employees, felt good about their company’s culture prior to the pandemic with 77.7% saying they would characterize the culture as positive, although Covid-19 had an impact on work situations. People who primarily worked in person prior to the pandemic were over three times more likely than those who were already working remotely to say company culture was worse since the health crisis began. Nearly 92% of people already accustomed to remote work said company culture had either stayed the same or gotten better. The pandemic likely didn’t shake up their work routine as much as it did for employees who had to adjust to working from home.
According to the study, the sense of connection employees have with co-workers and managers also experienced some shifts in 2020. While a majority of people reported feeling the same level of connectedness to their co-workers (51.5%) and managers (46%), some employees experienced negative and positive variations. Over 1 in 4 respondents said they feel less connected to their co-workers, and 30.1% said the same of managers. Transitioning to less face time with colleagues can cause bonds and friendships formed in the office to drop off or fade. But feeling connected to co-workers can have a positive impact on employee productivity and mental health.
Nearly 56% of respondents said the pandemic had strained their relationships with co-workers. Given the amount of stress the pandemic has brought on, it’s not a stretch to think it could have impacted even the best working relationships. The amount of socializing people are engaging in with co-workers while working remotely could also be a factor. Nearly 43% of people who didn’t work remotely prior to the pandemic said they’re interacting with co-workers less than before the pandemic. Respondents who had already worked remotely actually said they were interacting with co-workers more since the pandemic. This could indicate that employees who have already built up communication systems and habits while remote might be better equipped to maintain and further build those connections in a crisis. Virtual socializing events didn’t seem to be widely adopted with only 31.8% reporting company offerings of virtual happy hours, 29.7% with virtual coffee chats and 24.8% with virtual trivia or games.
When asked what perks, resources, and initiatives their employer offered during the pandemic to help maintain company culture and make the transition to remote work easier, only 39% said their employer offered mental health resources during the pandemic. Employees felt the most effective offerings at maintaining company culture while working remotely were work-from-home stipends (36%), mental health resources and wellness programs (33%). Those who said their company culture was worse since the onset of the pandemic were twice as likely to have poor sleep and worse mental health problems than employees whose company cultures remained the same or improved. And employees who worked at companies that furloughed or laid off employees were more highly stressed than those at other companies.
Mickey Fain, President & CEO of Stoneside Blinds & Shades, said “These findings support many of the things we experienced as a company. First, we learned how to be more connected to team members who already worked out of the office and how to maintain a connection with teammates who usually worked in the office when they worked at home. This included virtual happy hours, photo contests and virtual check-ins/coffee chats, which will allow us to stay more connected to our entire team and provide the flexibility to our ‘office team’ to work at home more often. Secondly, this experience forced us to think about each of our team members in a broader sense. We learned to consider how our policies and actions affected team members and their families and explored additional resources or flexibility we could provide to help maintain a great culture.”
The Future Of Workplace Mental Health
Remote working isn’t going away any time soon. According to a survey from U.S. based Enterprise Technology Research, the percentage of full-time remote workers around the world will double from 16.4% before the coronavirus outbreak to 34.4% in 2021. Many business leaders like Mary-Clare Race, chief innovation officer at LHH, insist that the pandemic’s unprecedented mental health crisis requires companies to make the future of mental health and wellness a priority: “With offices now fully virtual for the foreseeable future, most companies, managers and senior leadership are tasked with the new challenge of prioritizing mental health remotely.”
Scott Shute, head of mindfulness and compassion at LinkedIn agrees. “In 2021, leadership will need to re-imagine a new, hybrid culture as many of us will continue to work from home part-time if not full-time all together,” Shute said, advocating for a more humanized workplace where workers are treated as people first, employees second, mental health days with personal time off, no meeting days, discussion sessions on mindfulness or managing burnout and online learning resources. “To help employees at LinkedIn, we created Mindful Moments, a self-paced online learning program to learn about mindfulness,” he said.
One of the biggest ways companies can support mental health is to encourage employees to take full advantage of PTO, mental health days and vacations. But a new Skynova survey of 1,000 employees shows that’s not happening with 54% of the respondents apprehensive to ask for additional time off for fear of falling behind. A Monster study also reported almost half of workers didn’t use all of their PTO this year. Claire Barnes, Monster Worldwide senior vice-president of Human Resources, responded to these findings. “Many companies—Monster included—have made an effort to reinforce the importance of taking a break. We’ve added PTO and mental health days to further encourage employees to decompress and take some well-deserved time off.” To that end, business leaders like Jamie Coakley, vice-president of people at IT support firm Electric, sees fewer work hours, more PTO and time off in the cards in 2021: “Companies that celebrate time off and resting will become the norm as opposed to working long hours and never taking PTO–this will become a thing of the past.” Coakley also predicted access to therapy, meditation and alternative forms of wellness will become essential employee benefits in 2021.
To meet the demand for remote working, Ray Grainger, co-founder and CEO of Mavenlink believes companies must ensure that employees get the appropriate software tools they need to accomplish their goals. And Yoav Landman, co-founder and CTO of JFrog, agrees that all employees need access to the software and tools necessary to continue doing their job, regardless of their location.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the nature of work for American employees, and company cultures are evolving along with the dramatic changes. Overall, culture shifts and company offerings like mental health resources, work-from-home stipends and wellness programs are effective in helping employees feel supported and connected to their company and sustain their job engagement and productivity.
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