Employees are so worried about returning to the workplace that half would just prefer to quit – but with many also finding remote working distracting and stressful, research suggests executives focus on employees’ mental health to reconcile the contradiction.

Some 72 per cent of employees in a recent International Workplace Group (IWG) study said they would choose long-term flexible working over a 10 per cent pay rise and five days in the office, with 49 per cent saying they would quit their job if asked to return to the office five days per week.

Employee resistance to in-office work has fuelled an explosion in hybrid work, with rentable work spaces providing a compromise that lets employees work where and how they want.

With an IWG analysis suggesting that hybrid working can save companies $14,300 per employee per year, the company is expanding its 3,500-building network of rental office space with more than 1,000 new locations this year.

The company’s Spaces office in Melbourne, for one, saw foot traffic increase 358.6 per cent from February this year – highlighting what IWG founder and CEO Mark Dixon sees as a permanent change in working strategies.

The hybrid-working model “is here to stay,” he said, noting that “not only do employees benefit from a dramatically improved work-life balance, but the model also represents a significant win for a company’s bottom line.”

Driven to distraction

Yet flexible working isn’t necessarily a panacea for workplace stress, with a new Sapphire Systems survey of over 1,000 UK workers finding that constant distractions and crushing time demands have compromised many employees’ experiences of remote work.

Just 32 per cent of workers said collaboration tools had made them more effective, with 78 per cent saying they were spending too much time in meetings and 71 per cent blaming distractions caused by the tools for causing them to make mistakes on day-to-day tasks.

Fully 43 per cent of workers said overuse of collaboration tools had impacted their morale and motivation, with 16-to-24-year-olds more likely to complain about their online working existence than their older colleagues.

Doubling down on mental health

Increasingly, “prioritising people” means executives need to recognise that many employees’ experiences of the pandemic have been quite different than their own – and that concerns about returning to the office are about much more than simply preferring to sit at home working in pyjamas.

A recent Headspace Health survey of CEOs and employees exposed a yawning gap in perception of the success of mental health support, with 94 per cent of CEOs arguing that they do enough to support workforce mental health – but just 67 per cent of employees agreeing.

Similarly, 87 per cent of CEOs believe it is easy for employees to access mental health benefits and 60 per cent report doing so – yet just 66 per cent of employees agree that mental health benefits are easy to access, and just 37 per cent have actually done so.

With worker surveys consistently showing that stress and burnout increased during the pandemic – and that returning to the office exacerbates the issue by destroying the new work/life balance – Headspace Health CEO Russell Glass called mental health “a business continuity issue that every leader needs to address, particularly as many employees return to the office and experience new day-to-day stressors.”

“To attract and retain talent,” Glass said, “it’s critical that leaders destigmatise mental health from the top down and meet the growing expectations of their employees for high-quality mental health benefits.”

While 71 per cent of workers say their company increased their focus on mental health support at the beginning of the pandemic, only 25 per cent of survey respondents said their companies have maintained that focus.

Increasing employee replacement costs, however, seem to be rapidly changing that: fully 88 per cent of HR leaders, the IWG research found, have positioned employee wellness initiatives as the top or medium priority for 2022.