The worldwide swing towards full—or as full as possible—remote work has moderated itself in the last quarter of this year, as countries cautiously reopen their economies and people gradually return to the office. And the middle ground many companies have settled on, combining the social aspects of the physical workplace with the flexibility of remote work, is the hybrid working arrangement.
Hybrid working, however, is not a panacea. The challenges created by the pandemic will persist even in a hybrid workplace, among them the growing issue of mental well-being. This particular challenge is projected to drag out for a considerable time—one report by International SOS in fact flagged it as potentially one of the greatest workforce risks organizations will face in 2021, surpassing even COVID-19.
What then are the projections for mental well-being in the hybrid workplace of the future?
The effect of a hybrid working style on stress
Ideally, a hybrid arrangement would provide enough flexibility to simultaneously ease the main stressors associated with both other types of work: long commutes and time away from family on one end of the spectrum, lack of social interaction and feelings of job insecurity on the other.
“If done right, a hybrid workplace can benefit employees and organizations as a whole—it can create a workforce that is more empowered and as a result more likely to not only be more motivated and productive, but also happier, healthier and more resilient overall,” says Jean Drouffe, CEO of AXA Insurance Singapore.
The problem, of course, is when companies do not get the hybrid workplace right, and employees experience the stressors of both in-person and remote work simultaneously. Dell Technologies' latest Remote Work Readiness Index found that even though more than 80 percent of employees are at least somewhat prepared for long-term remote working, 61 percent of employees feel their companies are not ready to provide the necessary support, and they tend to be most concerned about the blurring of boundaries between professional and personal lives.
Other studies also flag out this specific concern: Cigna's series of COVID-19 Global Impact Studies has tracked a consistently high and increasing rate of employees saying they feel as though they are 'always on', last recorded at 79 percent in August, and it's not certain whether hybrid working arrangements would reduce the figure.
How do we enhance the good and minimize the bad?
To some extent, the good and bad points of hybrid working can offset each other, according to Dr. Dawn Soo, Regional Medical Officer and Head of Wellness for Cigna in the Asia Pacific. Pointing to the statistics surfaced by Cigna's studies, she said: “The stress at work was offset by feelings of job stability, perceptions of reasonable working workloads, and good relationships with colleagues.”
Employers can take some pre-emptive actions to offer support and further reduce the potential stressors of a hybrid workplace, though.
Train leaders and managers on the new arrangements
The first and most important step is to ensure that managers understand how to manage in a workplace where only some employees are physically present at any given time. The past year has shown that a considerable number of managers were unprepared for handling a remote team, whether in maintaining engagement or keeping productivity up, let alone supporting their mental well-being. Studies have underscored this lack of training—one survey by Capita People Solutions indicates that even before COVID-19, HR leaders were already challenged by a lack of mental health training across their organizations, particularly among line managers who bear the day to day responsibility for employees' welfare.
“As we evolve and adapt to a new hybrid way of working, it will become increasingly important that we as leaders take steps to transform our approach to how we lead our teams and ensure that their mental health and wellbeing remains at the forefront,” says Nick Deligiannis, Managing Director, Australia & New Zealand at Hays. Such support needs to first come from the top, following which senior, middle, and line managers can receive the necessary training.
Have a comprehensive employee wellness program
In ordinary times, employers ought to have a good employee wellness program in place, and during a period of upheaval as the workplace changes, this program becomes all the more important to support mental health and well-being.
“People can feel stress from having to adapt to the new ways of working,” says Cigna's Dr. Soo. For some suggestions on what an employee wellness program should contain to deal with this stress, she cites a new report, 'Health and Wellness in Workplaces: What Works' on the ROI analysis of health and wellness interventions: “The findings show that mental health-related programs, such as stress management coaching, work-life balance training sessions, and meditation classes have been shown to reduce workplace stress while delivering high return on investment for the business. For example, mental health interventions yielded one of the highest returns, with the most effective program achieving a sixty-fold return on the initial investment.”
Adjust employee benefits to the new reality
The large majority of employee benefits are designed around physical presence in the office, or at least physical ability to go to this or that venue. But if the hybrid workplace is here to stay, that needs to change, says AXA CEO Drouffe.
“As more companies adopt the hybrid work model and people spend less time in the physical office as we know it today, on-site benefits will no longer be as relevant and appealing,” he points out: “In order for benefits to be utilized at the same level as before, we need to not only cater the right types of benefits to employees, but also consider how to make it easily accessible for them. For example, it’s not about having a gym in the building, but giving your employees access to gym networks. Providing access to telemedicine will be much more appreciated compared to having an on-site doctor in the office.”
Equip employees themselves with the skills to stay mentally healthy
Upskilling has been a buzzword for 2020, with collaboration and communication skills heavily emphasized. But with the heightened global awareness of mental health risks, it is timely to look into how employees can acquire skills such as resilience to maintain their own mental and emotional equilibrium amid the ongoing change and disruption.
“Being resilient means that you can cope well during a stressful situation without feeling overwhelmed,” says Dr. Soo. She offers a few tips for building this skill: “Developing resilience starts from taking small actions such as learning to accept change and planning what to do next when a setback has happened. During a stressful situation, examine how and why you feel the way you do, and look at the situation as an opportunity rather than a threat.”
As we move into 2021, it's clear that the hybrid working model will be the way to go for at least some time. Employers and employees clearly see eye to eye on the desirability of hybrid arrangements, as shown by assorted studies on employee preferences post-pandemic, and anecdotally, many companies around the world are already overhauling their offices and policies to accommodate the new model. Mental well-being will need to be as much a part of this transition to hybrid as technology was in the original shift to remote.