Working from home is corroding our mental health — and it’s getting worse

Returning to the office isn’t going to happen anytime soon. COVID-19 cases are on the…

Returning
to the office isn’t going to happen anytime soon. COVID-19 cases are on the
rise again. And the result is that remote working is here to stay for the
foreseeable future.

Only
28% of U.S. employees expect to return to their workplaces by the end of 2020,
according to a recent Conference Board survey of more
than 1,100 U.S. workers. Another 38% of those workers expect to return
at some point in 2021 or beyond.

That’s
troubling because working from home has already taken a toll on the mental
health of workers, according to a new global study of people
between age 22 and 74 by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, an HR
research and advisory firm.

The
survey of more than 12,000 employees, managers, HR leaders, and C-level
executives across 11 countries, found that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively
affected the mental health of 78% of the global workforce. Meantime, a whopping
85% of people say their mental health issues at work negatively affect their
home life.

I touched on mental health challenges of remote work in
my previous MarketWatch column on ways
to combat work from home burnout. The issue, however, deserves more attention.

The number of adults experiencing depression has tripled
in the United States since the coronavirus outbreak began, according to a JAMA
Network study, with
more than one in four adults reporting symptoms of depression.

I was curious about how the cohort of workers I frequently focus my work on–the 50+ set–were holding up.

So I asked Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace
Intelligence, to pull some data from their study that compares generational age
groups with some conclusions about how they’ve both handled the new workplace. I
will get to that shortly.

Battling stress and anxiety

First some overview from the study:

Seven out of 10 people have had more stress and anxiety
at work this year than any other previous year, according to the global
research. Four out of 10 people say they are also battling everyday workplace stressors like the pressure to meet performance
standards and unmanageable workloads.

This is particularly the case for people working from home
alongside other relatives or roommates, and those helping their kids with
online schooling, or navigating the financial fallout from a spouse’s job loss
during the pandemic.

And even after months of working from home, it’s still problematic
for many people to draw the boundaries between working hours and home life. In
fact, 41% say there is no longer a distinction between personal and professional
life.

Workplace pressure and the related mental health repercussions
aren’t new. The coronavirus has, however, transformed the way we work and the
way we psychologically navigate it in ways that no one could have imagined.

“The pandemic has put mental health front and center — it’s the biggest workforce issue of our time and will be for the next decade,” said Schawbel. “The results of our study show just how widespread this issue has become, and why now is the time for organizations to start talking about it and exploring new solutions.”

Mental health has become “not only a broader societal
issue, but a top workplace challenge,” said Emily He, senior vice president of
Oracle’s human capital management cloud business group. “It has a profound impact
on individual performance, team effectiveness and organizational productivity.”

The resilience of older workers

 “Our study found
that older age groups are less worried about their mental health at work
compared to their younger counterparts,” Schawbel said.

Eight in 10 of Generation Z in the workforce surveyed (those age 22-to-25) and 73% of millennials (age 26 to 37) surveyed said this year they’ve had more stress and anxiety at work than any year before compared to 59% of baby boomers (ages 55-to-74). And while only 11% of Gen Z and 17% of millennials say that COVID-19 hasn’t negatively affected their mental health. More than double the number of boomers (28%), said it hasn’t adversely touched them.

That, in my opinion, says something for the benefit of
age and experience when it comes to weathering this workplace redo and a plus
for the resilience of older workers in the workplace. Nonetheless, it’s clear
that the stress and anxiety is a reality for all ages in the workplace.

Tapping AI for help

Chatbot
to the rescue?

No
doubt, you’ve talked to one before. A chatbot is a software application used to
conduct an on-line chat conversation via text or text-to-speech, instead of having
direct contact with human being.

The pandemic launched a surge in  the use of communication and video
conferencing tools from Zoom to Slack. Most of us have become comfortable with this
technology out of necessity for work and also the desire to stay connected to
friends and family.

Mental health tech tools using artificial intelligence are
next up. The study by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence, reported that 68% of
people would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and
anxiety at work. Only 18% of people would prefer humans over robots to
support their mental health as they believe robots provide a judgement-free
zone (34%), an unbiased outlet to share problems (30%), and quick
answers to health-related questions (29%).

Moreover, 76% of people believe companies should be doing
more to support the mental health of their workforce. Eight in 10 workers
would like their company to provide technology to support their mental health,
including self-service access to health resources (36%), on-demand counseling
services (35%), proactive health monitoring tools (35 %), access to wellness or
meditation apps (35 %), and chatbots to answer health-related questions (28%).

That said, when Schawbel parsed the data, he found that older
workers are much less likely to turn to technology to support their own mental
health than younger workers, who are early adopters and regular users of the
latest tools in their personal and work lives, he said.

“When we asked: Would you prefer to talk to a robot (i.e.
AI-powered therapist or chatbot counselor) over your manager about stress and
anxiety at work? Eighty-five percent of Gen Z and 77% of millennials said yes,
compared to 59% of baby boomers,” Schawbel said. And 78% of Gen Z and 72% of millennials
are open to having a robot as a therapist/counselor compared to 46% of baby
boomers. (To me, that percentage of boomers is still pretty high.)

“Younger generations have been hit the hardest in terms
of workplace mental health as a result of the pandemic,” Oracle’s He told me. “They
are much more likely to be suffering from increased stress and anxiety than
their older counterparts and are more willing to turn to technology for support
because they are naturally more comfortable with embracing AI as a part of
their lives.”

For the older generation of workers, “many may still be
getting used to having technology intertwined with both their personal and
professional lives, so the idea of talking to a chatbot for mental health
support might be much more challenging to accept,” she said.

But stay tuned. It might take a little getting used to, but never say never.
Look at how Zoom chats have become second nature to many people who had never
experienced the virtual “Hollywood Squares” meeting format a year ago.

There are new features, for
example, from Microsoft Teams and Outlook launching in the first half of 2021. These
offerings include “a virtual commute experience for better work- and home-life
transitions and integration” with Headspace, a mindfulness
and meditation app.

I admit I’m personally not up for talking to a chatbot,
at least not at the moment. I find it annoying enough when I am trying to get
help with online support for tech issues I’ve had. Eventually, I switch to a
live operator.

And I’ve yet to commit to a meditation practice. That said, I make time each day to walk my dog (she reminds me), listen to music, and FaceTime with my 91-year-old mom, who is blissfully unaware of the pandemic and loves to laugh and sing. It’s refreshing.

What are you doing to keep your calm on?

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