As U.S. Returns to the Office, Europe Has Tips On What to Do—and Not Do

People wait in line to enter outside the Goldman Sachs headquarters building in New York, U.S. (Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg)

As U.S. Returns to the Office, Europe Has Tips On What to Do—and Not Do

As millions of Americans begin the process of returning to the workplace, mental health is at its nadir. But in Europe, where many companies have weathered several bouts of lockdowns and office returns, a blueprint of what to do—and not do—has slowly taken shape.

Returning workers in the U.S. and their employers face a host of unprecedented issues, including the unknown consequences of hybrid work schedules and the looming fear that the coronavirus threat will reappear in the form of a vaccine-eluding variant. Rather than play trial and error, U.S. organizations might peer across the pond and consider the continent’s failures and successes.

Belgium-based psychologist Elke Van Hoof, an expert on organizational stress and resilience, said she’s seen the smoothest back-to-office transitions among companies that were prioritizing psychological health before the pandemic. “If there was already a tradition of considering the best possible work conditions for employees, and reflecting on these issues, it facilitated easier responses to the unforeseen situations that the pandemic brought,” she said. Advertising firm executive Petra De Roos put it more bluntly: “If you have to start building a culture of supporting people during a pandemic, it’s too late.”

As U.S. Returns to the Office, Europe Has Tips On What to Do—and Not Do

Many firms were ahead of the curve because the same European Union workplace regulations that require organizations to prioritize worker safety also address psychological welfare. Chief wellbeing officers are not uncommon, as are in-house teams trained in mental health or organizational psychology.

At LDV United, De Roos’s 50-person agency in Antwerp and a unit of WPP, the first point under “Our Culture” in the employee handbook  reads “We want happy people.” A lot of that happiness seems to revolve around hybrid work arrangements involving both home and office. 

“We built on the culture that we’ve established over 10-20 years,” said De Roos, LDV’s managing director. “The pandemic approach that we’ve used is a combination of ‘shots of happiness’ and ‘shots of helpfulness.’” The “shots” of happiness can be small gestures or gifts to help brittle employees decompress. Examples include flower deliveries to home offices, online gaming events and even warm messages saying “we miss you.”

LDV’s “shots of helpfulness” include more robust efforts, including on-call mental health coaches, updated ergonomic seating for the home and visits from the IT manager. “If you have kids in online school and your internet goes berserk, you just call our IT manager and he comes over and he fixes your internet,” said De Roos. 

To American ears, much of this may sound fanciful. And though some U.S. companies have helped workers navigate the pandemic by increasing mental health offerings, Van Hoof points out a key difference in workplace culture.

As U.S. Returns to the Office, Europe Has Tips On What to Do—and Not Do

“A lot of companies have a great menu of programs,” the psychologist said of U.S. firms. “They have employee assistance programs, they have online training, they have [therapist] contact details. But the employee has to do something themselves in order to access those facilities, and they don’t that. Six out of eight employees won’t snoop around in such menus.”

And most psychological healing doesn’t come through programs—though they can be a path forward, she said.

“The real challenge is to see that people can help themselves. There’s only so much you can offer as a company,” said De Roos. She has arranged employee courses on resilience-building and a campaign to encourage learning something new every three weeks (an idea she attributes to Van Hoof). The theory is that new activities—going on a hike, learning how to knit or play guitar—can work wonders for depressed workers emerging from a year of trauma.

“Our mind has a perspective of about three weeks,” said De Roos. “Planning something every three weeks gives you peace of mind and helps you cope better with stress.” 

This approach can be traced back to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. “When carrying out a risk assessment, psychosocial risks are among the risks that a company is meant to evaluate for—it must include issues like stress,” said William Cockburn, head of the agency’s prevention and research unit. Unlike the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration [OSHA], the EU organization doesn’t have an enforcement arm, but instead serves as a a hub for guidelines.

Just weeks into the pandemic, the agency told organizations they were responsible for making “home-based telework as healthy, safe and effective as possible,” and put mental health front-and-center with seven suggestions. The majority weren’t formal programs, but soft-touch efforts such as asking workers how they’re doing and arranging coworker buddies.

The agency’s Back to the Workplace publication has been downloaded over one million times in 25 languages. It suggests companies treat workers coming back to the office with approaches previously reserved for those returning from leave for depression and anxiety

By comparison, a similar publication by OSHA makes no mention of “mental health” and addresses psychological wellbeing with a lone reference to healthcare workers: “Ensure that psychological and behavioral support is available to address employee stress.” (Spokespeople for the agency didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

Messaging from the European agency has helped spur initiatives like those at the National M.S. Center in Melsbroek, Belgium, a 300-employee hospital for multiple sclerosis rehabilitation, which adopted frequent check-ins with employees on leave for any condition (including Covid-19 or mental health). “We know who is absent for longer periods, and we call them,” said Els Urbancyzk, the hospital’s director of personnel and organization. “At four weeks, we start a sort of reintegration that employees feel comfortable and informed about their returns.”

As U.S. Returns to the Office, Europe Has Tips On What to Do—and Not Do

Van Hoof said one common mistake she sees is organizations failing to firmly articulate a policy shift from remote to hybrid workplaces.

“When there’s no strategic policy around hybrid or remote working, workers are less efficient due to high levels of toxic stress, and the company loses productivity.” Companies reluctant to broach the topic should include employees in their decisionmaking, she said.

“A leader might commit to designing the future of the company’s work, and ask staffers, ‘How do we all want to collaborate in a more hybrid or remote way?” said Van Hoof. “That’s something that employees really like and sign on to. They are working towards a goal, and I think in the pandemic, that really facilitates more resilience.”

Personalized efforts are needed as well. Hilla Dotan, a professor of organizational behavior at Tel Aviv University in Israel, said that as employees return to the office, organizations need to help them feel valued and find meaning.

“Organizations should focus on really having that one-on-one meeting with every single employee and asking each, ‘how can I help you feel good here at work in our organization?’ For a lot of people, the pandemic provoked a lot of reflection time,” Dotan said. “People really want to feel that they’re doing something really important and is making a difference. Certainly people who’ve lost loved ones.”

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