Employees are beginning to return to the office in large numbers. It’s a moment of normalcy in a year that’s been anything but normal.
Yet it’s causing employee stress—very different stress from work-from-home fatigue and isolation, but real stress nonetheless. May’s Mental Health Index by Total Brain surveyed workers and found that nearly two-thirds are experiencing return-to-work anxiety after more than a year of remote working.  While workers of all ages report anxiety, levels are highest in workers ages 40 to 59—up to 47 percent higher than before the onset of the pandemic. 
Return-to-work anxiety and employee stress is highest among working women, with significant increases in both indicating mental health worsening for this group.  Perhaps not surprisingly, these increases could relate to changes in family and workplace routines, and to the challenges of balancing childcare, school and summer camp schedules for working mothers.
Beyond return-to-work anxiety, employees are also reporting drops in sustained attention of 60 percent and more over the past three months.  This means employee focus and engagement could be a challenge as offices prepare for new in-person routines. Sustained attention and planning relate to efficiency and productivity, which of course can affect the bottom line.
With these strong indications that employee stress is ticking up right as offices begin a transition to the next normal, there are realities for employees and employers to address. What can employers do to ease the transition back and to support employees through return-to-work anxiety?
Change creates employee stress
The first months of the pandemic were marked by sharp rises in employee stress as workers adjusted to upended routines and reacted to crises unfolding around them. Makeshift workstations replaced the office. Zoom replaced in-person meetings. Working parents strained to meet the impossible demands of remote school and work. This was a period of change that contributed to historic levels of stress. Only over months did a sense of normalcy develop.
The return to in-person work is causing change, too: new routines, new schedules, and new habits. Acknowledging that change can cause employee stress can be a first step in addressing return-to-work anxiety.
In addition, many employers are embracing hybrid return-to-work schedules to ease the transition. In January, Great Place to Work surveyed nearly 80 executives from Fortune 500 companies, with most targeting returning to in-person work within 7 to 12 months.  As the vaccine rollout has accelerated, many large employers have moved this timetable up, with return-to-work now underway for workers across industries. Business travel is also resuming, although it is expected to remain 70 percent or more below pre-pandemic levels in 2021. 
The May Total Brain Index, though, showed that incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is on the rise, with the risk nearly 30 percent higher than in February.  Easing into a new in-person schedule can help to lower employee stress and help workers adjust to new work-life demands and balance. In addition, it’s important to understand employees’ preferences when it comes to transitional and hybrid schedules. New research reveals that 55 percent of employers will offer hybrid schedules, while 28 percent will mandate a full in-person return to work—and just four percent believe employees wish to return to 100% in-person schedules. 
Destigmatizing employee stress and mental health
One key to addressing employee stress about returning to work is understanding that the mental health impacts of the last year will persist for some time. They are real, and they should not be ignored.
In fact, the experience and crises of the last year have created an opportunity to build more open, supportive workplace cultures. Cultures that can foster dialogue about mental health and well-being and employers that provide a full spectrum of mental health resources will have greater ability to support employees, decreasing return-to-work anxiety and lowering employee stress.
Giving employees access to the tools and resources for better mental health and well-being can go a long way toward smoothing the transition. Yet one-size-fits-all primary health insurance plans aren’t the answer. Many of these plans fall short when it comes to mental health. Voids in coverage, high deductibles and rising out-of-pocket healthcare costs can all create barriers to accessing effective support. In addition, employees experiencing return-to-work anxiety, stress and other mental health challenges can have difficulty navigating to care.
After so much change, though, employers don’t want to change their primary health insurance plans. This is where benefit flexibility can help. Employers ready to ease the transition back to in-person work can look to complementary health insurance plans* for a cost-effective and targeted way to expand access to coverage and support for mental health during and after this period. Those that expand benefits with these complementary health insurance plans will join the nearly half of employers that expanded access to virtual mental health benefits in 2020. 
The right complementary health insurance benefits* offer truly effective support that connects employees quickly to what they need, when and where they need it, via a personal mobile device. Care navigation can also help. This is a feature of WellPak by ArmadaCare, our new fully insured indemnity health insurance plan. It provides all-in-one access to coverage and support for better mental health and well-being, including a full spectrum of care for everyday to critical needs with Connect & Thrive. WellPak can be layered over the primary health insurance plan to enhance coverage for select employees or a broad population. Learn more.
Employers and employees that can be realistic, proactive and supportive during the return to the workplace can emerge from this period stronger, more engaged and more productive. Embracing the realities of return-to-work anxiety and effectively addressing employee stress with a flexible benefit strategy offer a solid starting point.
*The above referenced supplemental health insurance policies have exclusions, limitations and benefits that vary by plan and state. To obtain a quote or for more details on coverage, contact ArmadaCare.
 Mental Health Index, Total Brain and National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalition, 2021
 Mental Health Index
 Mental Health Index
 Mental Health Index
 Great Place to Work, 2021
 Wall Street Journal, 2021
 Mental Health Index
 Littler Annual Employer Survey Report, 2021
 Willis Towers Watson, 2020