Last summer, Julio Carmona started the process of weaning himself off a fully remote work schedule by showing up to the office once a week.
The new hybrid schedule at his job at a state agency in Connecticut still enabled him to spend time cooking dinner for his family and taking his teenage daughter to basketball. But in the next few months, he’s facing the likelihood of more mandatory days in the office. And that’s creating stress for the father of three.
Carmona, 37, whose father died from the coronavirus last year, worries about contracting the virus but he also ticks off a list of other anxieties: increased costs for lunch and gas, daycare costs for his newborn baby and his struggle to maintain a healthy work-life balance. “Working from home has been a lot less stressful when it comes to work-life balance. You are more productive because there are a lot less distractions.”
As more companies mandate a return to the office, workers must readjust to pre-pandemic rituals like long commutes, juggling childcare and physically interacting with colleagues. But such routines have become more difficult two years later. Spending more time with your colleagues could increase exposure to the coronavirus, for example, while inflation has increased costs for lunch and commuting.
“A lot of people have gotten accustomed to working from home. It’s been two years,” says Jessica Edwards, national director of strategic alliances and development at the U.S.-based National Alliance on Mental Illness. “For companies, it’s all about prioritizing mental health and being communicative about it. They should not be afraid of asking their employees how are they really doing.”
Companies like the Vanguard Group Inc. are now expanding virtual wellness workshops that started in the early days of the pandemic or before. They’re also expanding benefits to include meditation apps and virtual therapy. Meanwhile, Target Corp., which hasn’t set a mandatory return, is giving teams the flexibility of adjusting meeting times to earlier or later in the day to accommodate employees’ schedules.
A lot is at stake. Estimates show that untreated mental illness may cost companies up to $300 billion annually, largely due to impacts on productivity, absenteeism and increases in medical and disability expenses, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Russ Glass, chief executive officer of online mental-health and well-being platform Headspace Health, says he has seen a fourfold spike in the use of behavioural health coaching and a fivefold spike in clinical services like therapy and psychiatric help during the pandemic compared to pre-pandemic days.
With apps like Ginger and Headspace, the company serves more than 100 million people and 3,500 companies. Among the top worries are anxiety over contracting the coronavirus and struggles with work-life balance. “We haven’t seen it abate. That level of care has just stayed high,” he said.
The constant wave of new virus surges hasn’t helped. Francine Yoon, a food scientist at Illinois-based Ajinomoto Health & Nutrition North America Inc., has been working mostly in person since the pandemic, including at her current job that she started last fall. Yoon says her company has helped to ease anxiety by doing things like creating huddle rooms and empty offices to create more distance for those experiencing any form of anxiety about being in close proximity to colleagues.
But moving in last year with her older parents, both in their early 60s, has led to some heightened level of anxiety because she’s worried about passing on the virus to them. She says every surge of new cases creates some anxiety. “When cases are low, I feel comfortable and confident that I am OK and that I will be OK. When surges occur, I can’t help but become cautious.”
As for Carmona, he’s trying to lower his stress and is considering participating in his office’s online meditation sessions. He’s also thinking of carpooling to reduce gas costs. “I am one of those people that take it day by day. You have to try to keep your stress level balanced because you will run your brain into the ground thinking about things that could go haywire.”