How Can Health and Well-being be Maintained in a Hybrid Work Environment?

The lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a shift in the labour market and expectations of business. Previous assumptions about a return to pre-pandemic ways of working have been largely replaced by a hybrid model and higher-than-usual rates of attrition. With employees seeking better pay, benefits, and career advancement opportunities[1], or ‘quietly quitting[2]’ to protect their work-life balance, companies need to take a more holistic approach to address the human needs of the workforce. Sporadic well-being days or an outsourced mental health helpline are not enough to compete for talent in today’s context. While people’s behaviours have changed in the workplace (with no more taboo against working from home), their fundamental needs remain the same as before. These include the need for equitable, safe and healthy working conditions[3].

Amid the mental health issues faced by many workers during the pandemic[4], employers intensified their focus on the well-being agenda. While concerns about the coronavirus have reduced this year, inflation is now the biggest worry facing people globally[5]. There are examples of companies embedding psychological wellbeing into their strategy, with Chief Happiness Officer and Chief Mental Health Officer emerging as HR job titles[6]. But although the stigma around mental health is being addressed, it still persists – and may be worsening due to individuals’ fears of speaking up and risking their job security during a time of economic uncertainty. Raising mental health issues is difficult for employees in any case due to cultural barriers, and physical distance during remote working makes it more challenging for managers to recognise the signs of problems. So, how should psychological well-being be reframed for hybrid work?  

Research by Nottingham Business School[7] highlighted that psychosocial factors such as age and work environment have a key impact on mental well-being. Remote working can lead to higher stress levels and burnout, if individuals feel isolated or unable to establish a boundary between their work and personal life. Interventions often lack holistic framing of the problem, focusing reactively on the issues rather than addressing the complex interplay of factors affecting well-being. There has also been a lack of consideration around how new ways of working are impacting different employee groups – sometimes exacerbating existing issues (such as struggles to balance high workload with personal priorities), rather than creating new ones. In Singapore, for example, workers with caring responsibilities experienced more stress than other workers in 2021[8]. This points to the critical need for organisations to understand individual situations and design practices that account for the differential impact of hybrid work on particular groups.

Mental health issues should not be framed as matters of individual responsibility: they are best addressed by building and maintaining a supportive culture[9]. This can be maintained in a hybrid work environment by embedding continuous conversations about the issues and how to solve them. It is important that employees have a stake in driving the culture, with every business level involved in keeping momentum around the agenda and developing interventions that are meaningful to staff.

Company policies are important in supporting well-being and flexibility for all workers, but it’s manager behaviour that makes the biggest difference[10]. Since pre-pandemic, this continues to be the main factor driving employees to leave their jobs[11]. To avoid mental health becoming a check-box activity, there should be particular emphasis on regular open conversations between line managers and employees. Individuals who feel that their manager is supportive of hybrid working patterns are also more likely to want to continue working hybridly,  which is key given that hybrid working looks set to become the norm globally[12].

While support for home working has increased, there has not been the same level of support for other types of flexible working. This has resulted in parents and carers in particular often working longer hours to accommodate their caring responsibilities, since there are no policies in place to prevent them from having to ‘make up’ time. Support currently tends to be focused on resources and tools, rather than ways of working[13]. Employers need to redesign job roles to better suit hybrid working and look more broadly at flexible working options, such as compressed hours and job-sharing. Companies can also look at ways to give people a sense of control over their work, such as the right to disconnect from emails or the ability to work where they’re most productive.

Finally, in building a holistic framework for employee health and well-being, what gets measured is what matters. Gathering high-quality data plays a critical part in understanding the experiences and drivers of employee well-being, and how to improve it. Measuring the impact of different policies and interventions therefore enables companies to create a coherent and effective approach[15].

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