Boundaries between work and life have been dissolving as cell phones and the internet made it possible to reach people outside the office.
But when the pandemic hit in 2020, sending legions of office workers to log in from home, separating work from the rest of life became a totally different ballgame. And it’s taken a big toll on mental health.
Work is the leading cause of stressTrusted Source among Americans, and research shows that work has grown considerably more intense over the past 50 years. Two-thirds of U.S. workers believe that burnout had worsened during the pandemic, according to a survey by the recruiting site Indeed.
And parents are facing especially extreme stress juggling work with other responsibilities, as are Communities of Color and others disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
But many workers also report benefits of working from home, including increased productivity, flexibility, and convenience. And remote work appears to have staying power: Ninety-nine percent of HR leaders believe some form of hybrid work will continue into the future, according to a survey by Gartner.
How employers can improve worker well-being
The pandemic has shown that companies are able to pivot their policies on a dime.
When it was in the best interest of health and safety for people to work from home, companies swiftly made the necessary adjustments, allowing employees to accomplish many of the same tasks offsite and rethinking the necessity of in-person interactions.
But the further breakdown of the separation between work and home life has led to major burnout, and companies need to do more to protect the physical and mental health of their employees.
The Work and Well-Being Initiative, a joint effort between Harvard and MIT started in 2018, identified three main principles for improving well-being among workers: Allowing employees more control over their work, taming excessive work demands, and improving social relationships in the workplace.
Loss of agency, not just at work but in various aspects of life, is a proven cause of stress. “The ability to control when, where, and how you work is paramount,” says Phyllis Moen, PhD, professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and co-author of “Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It.”
Giving employees more control over their methods and scheduling, particularly as they work from home, allows people greater agency to do what works best for them.
“Smart companies are offering a lot of support and latitude for their employees to figure out how to get the job done,” Moen says.
“The focus is on results, not on the time that people are logging on.” Zeroing in on results also tends to increase productivity, by narrowing time spent to more essential tasks.
“Shifting to more of a results-driven ethos can only help all of us, because time is our most precious commodity,” Ettus says.
Making sure that employees aren’t overloaded, or taking on so much work that they’re always stressed out, pays off for both workers and companies. Excessive work demands, like long hours and pressure to work fast, have proven negative impacts on physical and mental health.
And because workers who are sick or struggling with stress are less productive, ensuring their well-being also benefits a company’s bottom line.