Return-To-Office Mandates May Be Worsening America’s Burnout Epidemic. An Ex-Harvard Professor Says The Science Of Happiness May Be The Cure

Fortune Well November 1, 2023


Return-To-Office Mandates May Be Worsening America’s Burnout Epidemic. An Ex-Harvard Professor Says The Science Of Happiness May Be The Cure

While return-to-office mandates sweep the country, American workers are struggling with record levels of burnout and depression.

The timing couldn’t be worse. 

According to Wysa’s Employee Mental Health Report 2023, the largest study of its kind, 56% of North American workers reported symptoms of mild or more severe depression. Another report by Headspace found that 49% of employees feel a sense of dread at work at least once per week. 

With such dire statistics, companies are scrambling to find a fix–and the solution may lie in the study of happiness.

Why happiness is critical for business

“A company can’t exist without talent. So, prioritizing employee health and well-being is not only the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative,” writes Fortune’s Sheryl Estrada.

Tal Ben-Shahar, ex-Harvard professor and the founder of the world’s first Master of Arts in happiness studies couldn’t agree more. 

“When people are happier, they are more productive, creative, innovative, and collaborative,” Ben-Shahar told Fortune in a previous interview, noting the positive uptick in retention rates when employees feel happy at work. “This means that increasing happiness can have a positive impact on all of the KPIs that are important for organizations.”

Ben-Shahar says the science of happiness boils down to a strategy he created alongside fellow Wholebeing Institute co-founder Megan McDonough: “SPIRE.” The acronym calls for spiritual, physical, intellectual, relational, and emotional well-being, and Ben-Shahar argues that many of the interventions used for individual happiness can also be applicable to organizational happiness. 

6 ways to implement the science of happiness at work
1. Psychological safety

“Psychological safety in the workplace is extremely important—perhaps the most important—for the success of an organization,” says Ben-Shahar.

To achieve this, employees need to feel comfortable speaking up, disagreeing, and taking risks at work. According to Ben-Shahar, the best way for managers to create a psychologically safe environment is to lead by example by being vulnerable and talking about their shortcomings or concerns.

“If you open up, you’re much more likely to encourage others to do the same,” Ben-Shahar says. “Just as children need to fall down in order to learn how to walk, employees need to be able to fail in order to learn and grow.”

2. Physical health

Sitting at a desk for more than eight hours straight every day won’t help your back problems, and limited exercise could spell trouble for your mental wellbeing. The issue connects to worker happiness: Ben-Shahar says sedentary lifestyles are the biggest contributors to rising levels of depression and anxiety across the U.S. 

“Physical exercise doesn’t necessarily need to mean I’m spending two hours a day in the gym. But moving around, walking up and down stairs, going grocery shopping, or going out for a walk,” he says. “These are all very important.”

According to Harvard researchers, regular physical exercise can be as effective as antidepressants in some cases. Given these benefits, Ben-Shahar says companies need to encourage employees to be physically active and take breaks throughout the day.

3. Curiosity and ongoing learning

“Whereas curiosity kills the cat, it actually helps people live longer,” says Ben-Shahar. Encouraging employees to constantly learn and grow, both within their field and in general, is vital to stimulating their intellectual well-being. 

Disposal company Waste Management (WM) has taken note, introducing robust education benefits for employees to complete a high school, undergraduate, or graduate degree as well as business certificate programs in 2021. In an interview with Fortune, WM’s chief human resources and diversity and inclusion officer, Kelly Rooney, said that employees enrolled in the program are 60% more likely to stay with the company than their non-enrolled peers.

4. Diversity

For Ben-Shahar, diversity “is not just a moral thing.” For an organization to maximize its potential, it has to have diverse teams “in every conceivable way,” he says. This means hiring people of not only different cultures, races, and genders, but also those who have opposing ideas and can challenge one another to grow. 

“You don’t want people who agree on everything,” says Ben-Shahar. 

5. Systematic interventions

While it’s good to focus on problem-solving, Ben-Shahar says leaders need to put just as much emphasis on the positives so that employees can appreciate the good aspects of their work lives. 

He suggests employees share one good thing that happened to them during the week prior or one thing they are looking forward to during the coming week at the end of each Monday meeting.

6. Face-to-face interactions

The U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy declared loneliness to be a public health epidemic back in May. Fueled by the increased use of social media, the crisis deeply worsened during the pandemic when remote work was more widely implemented. 

To combat widespread loneliness—which has health effects similar to smoking a dozen cigarettes daily—Ben-Shahar recommends balancing strong in-person relationships with hybrid work. 

“Many people talk to me about the new workplace. Can it be all online? Should we go back to the offices? And my answer is that hybrid is fine,” Ben-Shahar says.

In fact, a recent study published by the International Workplace Group (IWG), found that hybrid workers are exercising and sleeping more and reporting better mental health than before the pandemic.

“In most industries, there are some advantages to a remote workplace,” Ben-Shahar says. “But to give up face-to-face interactions–sitting in the same boardroom, going out for lunch together– that’s a disaster.” 

“As far as mental health is concerned, we need those intimate interactions, we need those face to face get-togethers.”

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