This Week's Herman Trend Alert

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  The Herman Trend Alert

March 15, 2023

Remote Work Associated with Higher Rates of Depression

In the early 2000s, the concept of telecommuting was becoming popular. Ann Price, my friend and CEO of Motek, the premier company in inventory software field located in Beverly Hills, California wanted to do something really nice for her employees---some of whom were commuting in their cars for hours every day, just to get to and from work, She embraced the concept of telecommuting, buying home office furniture, including ergonomic chairs for each of her people who would now be working from home. They had monthly in-person meetings, and once a month Ann would visit them in their home offices. A few months after she started her visits, Ann noticed something interesting. Rather than having pictures of their pet children or their spouses on their desks, her people had pictures of their coworkers. What, in fact, had happened is that they missed the socialization they had enjoyed in the office and around the water cooler. Ann soon abandoned the concept of remote work and instead, purchased a condo building walking distance from the office. When I saw this study about remote work and its association with depression, I wasn't surprised.

Mental Health Struggles have increased in Recent Years
In the United States, celebrities and politicians alike have recently publicly admitted suffering with mental health issues and sought help. Millions of people throughout the world experience this condition every year, and the pandemic may have caused it to disproportionately impact certain segments of the population.

New Study Highlights the Problem
According to new research from the Integrated Benefits Institute (IBI), based on a survey of nearly 500,000 employed people, symptoms of anxiety or depression have decreased overall since the height of the pandemic in 2020---from 40 percent to 35 percent. However, those symptoms today are more prevalent among those not working in an office: 35 percent for fully in-person workers, 38 percent for hybrid and 40 percent for remote workers.

What's Going On?
Previous IBI research pointed to a number of causes that could be driving up anxiety and depression among home-based employees. For instance, hybrid and remote workers reported challenges that included constant interruptions throughout the day, a seemingly endless workday, limited time with kids and spouses, and an overall struggle to balance work and family. Many remote workers also reported feelings of isolation; about one-third said they felt disconnected from their colleagues.

Others Segments Particularly Affected
Remote workers aren't the only ones disparately affected by anxiety and depression. The recent IBI report found rates are also higher among women than men, those under 24, workers with a lower income, and LGBTQ individuals.

Workers Responding to the Problem
Some workers are slightly more likely to use prescription medication to treat mental health (22 percent now, compared to 20 percent three years ago), yet 14 percent report that they need, but arenÕt getting, counseling help, up from 12 percent.

These Gaps Suggest Opportunities for Employers
Those figures suggest the time is right for employers to intervene. Among IBI's recommendations, the company advises HR to work with business leaders to improve access to mental healthcare. They also talked about the value of structuring programs that connect physical and mental healthcare, because certain health conditions including diabetes and heart conditions often occur with anxiety and depression. Employers need to prioritize inclusivity and access to culturally appropriate mental healthcare as well as confront stigma around workers seeking help for mental health; changing attitudes requires challenging work on the culture.

Here, I feel compelled to add that the results of this study do see somewhat self-serving, IBIÕs members provide mental health benefits.

The Role of HR
HR should lead organizations to look at mental health proactively and focus on forward-thinking programs that assist employees with overcoming potential day-to-day stressors, particularly among populations like remote and hybrid workers who could be more at risk. HR should lead their organizations to look at mental health "proactively" and focus on forward-thinking programs that assist employees with overcoming potential day-to-day stressors, particularly among populations like remote and hybrid workers, who could be more at risk. Ultimately, employers should recognize the mental health crisis and the role they can play in helping employees through it.

What's Next?
Not surprisingly, as the numbers of remote workers decreases so will those percentages of mentally ill we also expect to see games appear that could bring down those percentages. Eventually, we will discover that there is no substitute for human beings sharing the same physical space and that companies are not willing to forego the innovation that comes out of in-person and chance water cooler chats.

Next Week's Herman Trend Alert: Seaweed Blooms Affecting Beaches
Not only are warming ocean temperatures creating increasing numbers of worse storms, but they are also providing the right environment for a certain kind of seaweed to thrive. While there is a whole "sea" of sargassum in the Atlantic Ocean, these massive blooms are showing up on Caribbean beaches, clogging water arteries, and creating the need for a huge cleanup effort. See you next week.

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