The impact of return to office mandates on mental health

'These ultimatums can be detrimental to mental health,' says expert

The impact of return to office mandates on mental health

Eight in 10 companies will track employee office attendance in 2024, and 95% of companies say employees will suffer consequences if they don’t comply, with jobs, bonuses, and salaries at risk for those who do not comply, according to a new survey from Resume Builder.

Why are companies mandating employees’ return to office? Because they believe it has a positive impact on productivity (76%), improves culture (63%), and betters employee satisfaction, while 29% of business leaders say working from the office reduces burnout, according to the survey.

While it is not unusual for organizations to manage employee attendance, the challenge stems from ensuring there is ample support for employees and potential mental health challenges that could arise from these mandates, said Deborah Maynard, chief HR officer at Coast Mental Health.

Coast Mental Health was named as one of the Companies with the Top Innovative HR Teams in Canada. Read the full report here.

“Employers need to have a balanced approach so ensure they’re implementing these mandates in a way that is supporting both the organization and employees,” she said.

Ultimatums detrimental to mental health

The survey also found that 33% of survey respondents said they will fire employees if they do not go into the office when required, while 57% said noncompliance would result in bonuses being impacted, 54% said bonuses would be affected, and 53% said they would reduce salaries.

According to Maynard these types of ultimatums can be detrimental to mental health, leading to increased stress and anxiety among employees, so it is important for organizations to be aware of these impacts.

“Providing support, such as counselling services or flexible arrangements, is vital,” she said. “As HR leaders, we must advocate for policies that respect the individual needs of employees while aligning with the broader objectives of the organization.”

Meanwhile, the lack of choice, and the lack of the ability to have a say can also have a significant impact on employees. This impact can also extend to factors outside of work – one example being childcare. For employees who have been working remotely, additional strain could be added to employees and their families if they must suddenly accommodate for aspects such as childcare services, Maynard said.

Executing return to office mandates successfully

Considering potential impacts on mental health, Maynard advises that individual managers work with their employees to figure out what a return to office looks like for them.

“An organization can implement a company-wide policy, but it’s really giving your managers some discretion to be able to potentially extend or amend certain aspects of the policy. However, it may not always be possible for managers to do that,” she said.

However, just because an organization can implement a return-to-work policy doesn’t necessarily mean they should. Employers should make a decision based on what is best for their company but should also take into account the need for adaptability, as times and values are not the same as they were prior to the pandemic. This adaptation and taking employees into account is key not only for mental health but also for employee retention and engagement, Maynard said.

Employers should be making return to office decisions deliberately and recognize the potential impacts these decisions could have on employees in order to maintain a long-term relationship between employer and employee, she said.

These deliberate decisions could look like providing incentives to employees to make the return to office more appealing, offering flexible options where possible and ultimately being open to employee needs and accommodations.

“The decision largely hinges on the nature of the work and the company culture. It's about striking the right balance for both the employees and the organization,” she said. “I believe in a balanced approach that accommodates the diverse needs of our workforce while maintaining operational efficiency.”

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