After two and a half years of coronavirus pandemic-induced remote work, employers are attempting to bring employees back to the office, but many are failing to do so in a way that supports employees’ mental well-being and takes their desire for work-life balance into account, according to Linda Duxbury, a professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business, speaking during the keynote session at Benefits Canada‘s 2022 Healthy Outcome Conference.

“Your employees, during the pandemic, were there for you. Now that it’s getting toward the end, they’re expecting you to put them first or at least consider them in the equation and it’s not happening.”

Many employees who are being asked to return to onsite work have asserted they worked productively at home during the pandemic, but Duxbury said the data is clear: while employees were working longer hours over the past 2.5 years, they weren’t more productive since productivity is a measure of work done per hour.

Read: 2021 BPS coverage: New disruptors awaiting employers in the post-pandemic workplace

She attributed this to employees’ worsening well-being during the pandemic. Starting in March 2020, Duxbury interviewed 70 people multiple times over the course of the pandemic, complemented by data on 36,000 Canadians, to chart employees’ mental health. She found 54 per cent of Canadians had high levels of job stress, while only 15 per cent reported low job stress. Employees also reported reducing the amount of time they spent on self-care and sleep during the pandemic.

“We have to start spending money on improving people’s health because, if we leave it much longer, this data suggests these people are just going to burn out completely,” she said, noting this is only being exacerbated by increasingly challenging workloads.

Referring to surveys that polled both employers and employees, Duxbury noted the two groups are at odds over what a return to the office should look like. Nearly half of employees want 100 per cent remote work, while 80 per cent are adamantly against a full return to the office. The 14 per cent who wanted a full return to office were mostly executives.

In terms of employees’ reasons for continuing to work remotely, employees cited their comfort with their at-home routines, a desire to avoid their commute and a sense that their employer’s return to office plan didn’t make sense. On the other hand, the main appeal for returning to the office was seeing and spending time with colleagues, noted Duxbury.

Read: Survey finds 78% of Canadian employees prefer working from home

“If [they’re] going to come in, give [them] time to interact. [Office] friendships are hugely important. Gallup found people who have friends at work and who socialize with their [colleagues] are seven-times more likely to report higher job engagement and lower job stress.”

To address those hurdles, she suggested employers develop policies that specify certain days all members of a team should come in, with specific in-person activities that employees couldn’t do on their own and the time for non-work socializing with peers. Employers also need to lessen work demands to make this possible, she added.

In addition, Duxbury said employers are likely to make more headway with employees by moving the return-to-work conversation away from productivity. “Start talking about [the office as a] bringing-people-together place. It’s a learning space. It’s a space to talk about and solve complex problems. It’s a space to connect, as opposed to a place to work yourself to death so we’re more productive.”

Read more coverage of the 2022 Healthy Outcomes Conference.