Employee depression on the rise, study finds

Is returning to the office an opportunity to escape the WFH grind?

Employee depression on the rise, study finds

Returning to the office may become a way for employees to escape the grind of working from home, new research suggests. Gartner’s global study of more than 5,000 employees found more than a quarter of the workforce (29%) described itself as depressed.

Nearly half of the global workforce participated in a wellbeing scheme offered by their workplace last year. Yet despite that, when Gartner surveyed 50 HR leaders, only a quarter planned to maintain the programs introduced in 2020.

Speaking to HRD, Gartner vice president of HR advisory in Australia, Aaron McEwan, said businesses must be prepared to address the underlying mental strain that is still commonplace among the country’s workers. Just because Australia and New Zealand are in the recovery phase, it doesn’t mean COVID-19’s impact on employee wellbeing has disappeared.

“What we're picking up in the workforce is what will predispose people to mental health problems which is that they're burnt out and exhausted,” McEwan said. “It's really employee fatigue that is showing up in the workplace which is really concerning.”

Read more: Toxic Taboos: Why the stigma around mental health?

The research shows that employees experiencing burnout are up to 63% more likely to take sick leave and are 2.6 times more likely to seek a different job.

The fatigue and exhaustion Australians are feeling isn’t all Covid related either. Even before the global pandemic, a significant portion of the population experienced the worst bushfire season in history. Now many of those same communities are reeling from the devastation of the recent flooding.

“There's been a lot of events that have impacted on the mental health and resilience of employees, and now we've got all of the impacts of remote and hybrid work on top of that,” McEwan said.

But while Australia has certainly been up against a lot in the last year, the country is now ahead of many other nations in its response to the pandemic. Similarly, New Zealand has been leading the way in its efforts to eliminate COVID-19. McEwan said these countries, and the way they have prioritised the safety of citizens, have been heralded as examples to follow for much of Europe and America.

Read more: Why some workers are burning out more than others

All eyes will be on ANZ as employers continue to flesh out what the future of work looks like. How companies deal with the rising burnout and fatigue could pave the way for other nations to follow. But McEwan warned it won’t be easy.

The first big hurdle is equity. In a physical office, HR can strive for an equal working set up across all employees. But when people are at home, it’s just not possible. Some will have a decked-out home office, while others may be sharing the dining room table with their housemates and a patchy internet connection.

An employee’s ability to work flexibly should not be decided by their home office – or lack thereof. Otherwise, inequality will start to creep in between those who can afford to work from home, and those who can’t.

“What HR has to learn to do is manage for flexibility. How do they achieve equity when everyone's environment is not the same, and the circumstances that they're working in, are not the same?” he said.

The second big challenge is around fostering an environment where the organic, accidental conversations still happen. McEwan said most attempts to artificially create these moments has simply resulted in more meetings.

As well as feeling unnatural and awkward, this trend of back-to-back meetings is also putting even more pressure on employee mental health. It’s this reason that workers may start returning to the office as an escape from the constant virtual presence that has become the norm at home.

But as McEwan points out, burnout is not an individual condition. It’s the result of chronic workplace stress caused by poor management within organisations and systems. If workplaces are the cause, they must be the solution too.

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