As the mental-health concerns of employees in remote working arrangements continue to evolve, Thomson Reuters Corp. is taking a flexible approach to supporting these workers.
“Overall, there’s less of a [mental-health] crisis now [than there was at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic], when people felt they needed to always be on [their computers] and they were waking up in front of their screens,” says Mary Alice Vuicic, the media company’s chief people officer.
With many employees making a full or partial return to the workplace as the pandemic shifted to an endemic phase, she says the company is now focusing on helping its remote workers build and maintain connections with their colleagues as well as supporting mindfulness.
Among Thomson Reuters’ 27,000 global employees, roughly a quarter are fully remote — including its sales teams and some customer support personnel — while the majority are in a hybrid work arrangement. Early in the pandemic, the company opted to shorten video meetings and encourage employees to take a break from their screens.
“So, if it’s a half-hour meeting, it defaults to 25 minutes and if it’s an hour-long meeting, it defaults to 45 minutes. We encourage people to get up and take a walk outside or take care of something at home.”
In July 2022, the company expanded its remote working program to allow employees to work from anywhere in their country of residence for up to eight weeks or from anywhere in the world for four weeks, subject to local tax requirements.
Alongside the expansion of remote working, Thomson Reuters has also enhanced its mental-health offerings. Last October, it held a month-long ‘Courage to Connect’ campaign, which provided opportunities for workers to connect with each other and highlighted resources to support mental health.
Workers also have access to online counselling, wellness apps and an employee assistance program, along with two mental-health days per year that give all employees the chance to completely disconnect from work.
“These are the most popular days off that we have in the year because virtually everybody in the company shuts off,” says Vuicic. “Unlike vacation, when you’re still getting pinged on your devices because others are working, most people have stopped working and so you can actually just disconnect from technology entirely.”
Employee feedback is key in developing and adapting Thomson Reuters’ mental-health strategy. “[We had tremendous feedback from employees] on the chance to speak out about mental-health concerns and to make connections for support and allyship,” she says. “We’re also asking our leaders to share their stories and take the opportunity to [communicate] the resources that are available [to employees].”
The ups and downs of hybrid working
According to a 2023 report by Gallup Inc., employees who work in hybrid arrangements reported higher levels of stress than their remote and onsite colleagues.
However, it also found hybrid workers said they felt more engaged and productive than when they worked in-person full time. This conundrum has resulted in employers trying to strike a perfect balance between employee well-being and productivity, says Louisa Jewell, founder and president of the Canadian Positive Psychology Association.
“What we’re finding is that employers are taking many different approaches that work for them, but the [companies] where people are much happier are the employers where there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for everybody. They’re really listening to what their employees have to say and they’re creating programs that can be modified depending on the needs of their employees.”
She agrees employee feedback and consistent communication are keys to developing this flexible approach to the post-pandemic workplace. “A lot of companies [conduct an engagement survey] once a year, but that really doesn’t give you the information you need. To [truly] understand an employee’s experience, [employers need to conduct surveys] more frequently. It’s about listening, but it’s also about doing something with the information.”
Returning to the workplace
As more companies shift to onsite and hybrid arrangements, there will likely be a temporary spike in mental-health issues among employees who haven’t regularly worked in person over the last three years.
While many employers are enhancing mental-health benefits, it’s equally important for companies to ensure their employees know what supports and resources are available. “[Employers] are also expanding benefits, such as offering coverage for more time with psychologists and online cognitive behavioural therapy, but one of the problems is that people don’t know what is available, so they don’t think that their employer is doing anything around well-being. [By increasing visibility] of these programs, it lets employees know that their employer is doing something and they feel supported.”
Manager training and communication are important factors in meeting these well-being needs, as are enhanced mental-health benefits, says Jewell. “As people come back to [the workplace], I think we’re going to see a rise in anxiety levels as people get used to live interactions again. It’s important that managers are trained in how to have mental-health conversations.”
With employees in multiple working arrangements, that type of flexible communication approach is already in place at Thomson Reuters, says Vuicic. “It is equally important across all of our groups, whether they’re fully in-office or fully remote or hybrid. A lot of our focus on mental health involves working with leaders on understanding the unique needs of our people.”
Blake Wolfe is the interim editor of Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review.