By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
“I’m so upset. They just announced it. We are going to be 100% remote. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m at the end of my rope with this.” This came from a patient as he sat down for his therapy in my office the other day. It’s a sentiment I hearing all around, from friends, family, and colleagues. After a year of coping with isolation, feeling tied to their monitors, missing spontaneous interactions, having trouble shutting work off, and struggling to just get out of the house, many workers are feeling at the end of their ropes.
At the same time, every day another company announces they are making remote work permanent. We’ve all heard a lot of reporting in the media about the many advantages of the remote set up: no commuting, more time with family, greater flexibility in schedule. And for many workers the “new normal” is a boon. What about all the others? Those who live alone, who don’t have a comfortable home office, or who suffer with social isolation or depression. What we are not hearing about is what’s going to be lost and how that’s going to impact the mental health of millions of people.
This week at Access Institute, we had our first in-person staff meeting in over a year, thanks to vaccinations. The shared relief and joy was palpable. Seeing each other, feeling the presence of bodies in a room, sharing personal stories, spontaneous responses – it all felt like rain after a long drought. At one point I noted three different overlapping conversations happening. That kind of energy generated through human connection can never be replicated online.
The remote work zeitgeist seems somehow very American, the way our society latches onto the new “hot trend” and rushes ahead with it with little reflection on the long-term consequences. I find the irony of this one especially astounding, given all the attention being paid by companies to employee mental wellness. In my review of the plans put out by a number of large companies, including Salesforce, I’ve yet to read one that addresses the challenge this change presents to mental wellness.
It’s true that most employers are embracing a hybrid model where employees will have a number of options in their schedule and the model includes time in the office for collaborative meetings. Companies are promoting that as a win-win for employees; however, if you read the fine print, it won’t include all employees. Depending on the team and the nature of the work, some employees just won’t have that option. What about them?
My concern here is that the shift, while promoted as a win for employees in terms of flexibility, will be driven primarily by the needs of the company and will leave a lot of workers feeling left out, isolated, and demoralized. It doesn’t have to be this way and we certainly don’t need this new trend to exacerbate the already growing mental health crisis.
Here are a few easy things that employers can do right now:
I hope that in the coming months we can have bigger and more nuanced conversation about the ongoing changes in work culture and that we keep mental health at the center of those.