The Mental Health Crisis Caused by the Return to Office

4 min read
The Mental Health Crisis Caused by the Return to Office

The Great Return to the Office, hailed as the elixir for the languishing economy and the panacea for remote work’s woes, is slowly revealing an unforeseen dark side. Beneath the glitter of the office’s glass walls, an insidious scourge is quietly permeating: a mental health crisis. Think of it as a silent workplace apocalypse – one where zombies aren’t gnawing at your physical being, but where stress, anxiety, and burnout gnaw at your peace of mind.

Remember that feeling of relief when it seemed like we were emerging from the gloomy shadows of the pandemic, ready to embrace a shiny new world of ‘normalcy’? We sang paeans to the much-awaited ‘Return to Office’, our perceived phoenix rising from the ashes of remote work. Yet, as we dusted our office desks and waved goodbye to Zoom meetings, a rather disconcerting trend began to surface. This isn’t a whodunit mystery but a real-life drama where the villain is silently eating away at the fabric of our workforce: a rapidly escalating mental health crisis. Picture a silent office apocalypse – where the zombies aren’t physically visible, but where stress, anxiety, and burnout gnaw at your sanity and wellbeing.

Declining Mental Health: The Invisible Struggle

The silent alarm bells began ringing with the findings of a recent study by The Conference Board. It’s like an unsettling bedtime story for CEOs, the monster under the business bed that refuses to be ignored. Around 34% of workers admitted to experiencing lower mental health levels compared to just six months ago. And as if this wasn’t disconcerting enough, 37% reported a decrease in their level of engagement and sense of belonging, paradoxically juxtaposed with them working harder than ever.

This trend is starker amongst Millennials, where 43% report decreased engagement, higher than the 38% of Gen X and 34% of Baby Boomers. Consequently, 40% of Millennials reported performing only what’s expected of them or less – what’s known as quiet quitting. This disengagement raises the critical question: does declining mental health make workers less engaged in their jobs, or vice versa?

Consider an artist for a moment, who was once passionate and inspired, now feeling a distancing disconnection from her muse. The canvas that was once vibrant and animated now appears hauntingly desolate. That’s what it’s like when an employee’s connection to the mission and purpose of their organization wanes.

And the return to office looks like the key factor to blame. A whopping 52% of study participants indicated their preference for flexible/hybrid work schedules as a way of addressing their mental health struggles. And another form of flexibility, being able to take “no work” PTO days without guilt, would be valuable for 55% to help their mental health. That finding aligns with results from surveys and focus groups I run when helping clients transition to a return to office in a flexible hybrid work arrangement.

The Mental Health-Workload Nexus

The relationship between declining mental health and workload further amplifies these concerns. Among workers reporting decreased mental health, 48% work more than 50 hours per week. Half of the Millennials reported their workload as detrimental to their mental health, higher than 48% of Gen X and 40% of Baby Boomers.

Factors like poor workplace communication, the inability to balance personal and work life, and the time spent in meetings exacerbate these effects. A toxic work culture also takes a toll, with 26% of workers asserting that it negatively impacts their mental health.

Mental Health Support: A Decreasing Trend?

Unfortunately, mental health and well-being support programs for workers seem to be on a downward trend. Available emotional well-being programs have dropped from 88% to 62% within a year, and financial well-being initiatives have seen a similar decline from 76% to 52%. Physical well-being programs, too, have seen a decrease from 74% to 54%. Despite availability, these programs are underutilized, with emotional well-being programs used by only 22% of those who have access to them.

The plot thickens when we delve into the reluctance surrounding mental health discussions. The study reveals a startling fact – about 38% of employees feel like they’re walking on eggshells when talking to their managers about their mental health. It’s akin to playing a high-stakes game of charades, where no one can decipher your clues, and the consequences are all too real.

Driven into a corner, employees have resorted to clandestine methods to address their mental health issues. The study reveals that 13% of workers took “unofficial mental health days,” 19% opted for sick days, and 18% donned a brave face, continuing to work despite their internal struggles. It’s like donning a mask each day, a facade that hides the turmoil within.

Cognitive Biases: Unseen Puppeteers in the Workplace Drama

Our minds are like overworked office interns, continuously juggling and processing colossal amounts of information. In this constant frenzy, cognitive shortcuts, or biases, come into play. They help us swiftly navigate complex decisions but sometimes lead us astray, causing distortions in our perception, thinking, and decision-making.

The status quo bias is the human tendency to prefer the current state of affairs, leading to resistance to change. In the workplace, this bias can manifest in the continued adherence to traditional, inflexible work arrangements, despite evidence indicating their harmful effect on employee mental health.

Employers might be overlooking the findings of The Conference Board study due to the status quo bias. It’s like sticking with an old, stuttering fax machine while a high-speed email system waits patiently on the sidelines. As comfortable as the current state may be, failing to evolve with the times has its pitfalls. In this case, it leads to the devaluation of employee mental health and well-being, reducing engagement and productivity levels.

The empathy gap refers to our inability to understand our own or others’ emotional states from a different emotional state. In the current scenario, this bias could lead to a misunderstanding of employees’ mental health struggles.

Imagine trying to comprehend the bone-chilling cold of the Arctic while basking in the tropical sun of Bali; difficult, isn’t it? That’s precisely how the empathy gap operates. Managers who have never grappled with mental health issues may find it challenging to understand their employees’ struggles.

This cognitive blindspot could account for why 38% of employees feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health with their managers. It’s akin to trying to explain the concept of color to someone who’s been colorblind since birth.

This gap may also explain why mental health support programs are not being utilized. If the architects of these programs have never experienced mental health struggles, they might not create programs that truly address the needs of those who have.

In essence, the office is our mental orchestra, and these biases are the off-tune instruments. By recognizing and addressing them, we can finally begin to hear the symphony as it was meant to be played. It’s high time we tune in and harmonize our workplaces with the notes of empathy, understanding, and flexibility.

Conclusion: The Future of Work is Here

Employers have an opportunity to address the escalating mental health crisis. By adjusting workplace norms, embracing flexibility, and prioritizing mental health, we can create a healthier work environment. By adjusting the workplace norms and embracing flexibility, companies can retain their diverse talent, ensuring that their workforce mirrors society’s richness. It’s like baking a multi-flavored cake – each ingredient adds its unique flavor, contributing to the delicious final product. As we strive to reflect society within our organizations, flexible work arrangements and mental health awareness will be the yeast that makes our workplace culture rise to the occasion. This isn’t just about checking boxes; it’s about understanding that a healthy mind is the greatest treasure to find. It’s time we start digging for it in our workplaces.

Key Take-Away

The return to office has led to a mental health crisis, with declining mental health levels, increased workload, and a lack of support programs. Share on X

Image credit: Anna Shvets/Pexels

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. Dr. Gleb wrote the first book on returning to the office and leading hybrid teams after the pandemic, his best-seller Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage (Intentional Insights, 2021). He authored seven books in total, and is best know for his global bestseller, Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019). His cutting-edge thought leadership was featured in over 650 articles and 550 interviews in Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc. Magazine, USA Today, CBS News, Fox News, Time, Business Insider, Fortune, and elsewhere. His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, Spanish, French, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, with 8 years as a lecturer at UNC-Chapel Hill and 7 years as a professor at Ohio State. A proud Ukrainian American, Dr. Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio. In his free time, he makes sure to spend abundant quality time with his wife to avoid his personal life turning into a disaster. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, follow him on LinkedIn @dr-gleb-tsipursky, Twitter @gleb_tsipursky, Instagram @dr_gleb_tsipursky, Facebook @DrGlebTsipursky, Medium @dr_gleb_tsipursky, YouTube, and RSS, and get a free copy of the Assessment on Dangerous Judgment Errors in the Workplace by signing up for the free Wise Decision Maker Course at