Last Updated 2.23.21 First Published 2.09.21 THE LEVEL – Do the math: Despite dire predictions, pandemic-productivity levels actually rose 13% among the work-from-home class, according to a nine-month study from Stanford that examined 16,000 remote workers and their productivity rates last year.
The common assumption that remote workers are less productive is outdated, according to employee visibility software company Prodoscore, which not only studied whether work-from-home environments worked but when they work best.
The numbers were clear and not all that surprising, according to Prodoscore, which evaluated more than 100 million data points from 30,000 U.S.-based clients during March and April 2020 against the same period the prior year.
Workplace productivity improved by 47% since March, but some workdays are clearly better than others. Not surprisingly, Fridays and Mondays are the least productive of all workdays.
Not everyone agrees that working from home will ultimately work long-term.
The appeal of remote work diminished as the pandemic languished, according to an IBM study, which reported “work-from-home fatigue definitely set in” with 67% percent of home-based workers expressing a preference to continue some occasional remote work in August versus 80% just one month prior in July.
But employee sentiments reflected in the 2020 mid-year study may shift yet again as remote workers settle into new routines demanded by extended work from home requirements and enhanced resources, according to numerous HR experts.
Mental health was the single biggest influencing factor in respondents’ preference to return to physical work environments, followed by a desire for human contact and a need to improve productivity.
Chief among remote workers’ gripes are internet speed, according to a Stanford study that found only 65% of Americans have sufficient speed to handle video calls.
Not everyone has a home office and even those that do seldom have the right chair, desk, lighting and work environment suitable for longer-term engagement, according to numerous HR executives who concur there are definitely some kinks to work out of regarding longer-term remote office environments.
The physical stuff can be fixed, according to American Society of Employers Vice President and human resource expert Kevin Marrs. What is more difficult to address is an employee’s headspace.
Workplace stress has skyrocketed. Although mental-health experts may disagree with the numbers, the majority cite the problem as significant and alarming.
More than 70% of American workers report that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the most stressful time of their career, according to a survey by mental health provider Ginger.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all standard for remote work,” says Marrs. “One thing we know is that it’s not for everyone. Regardless of preferences, HR managers must continue to work with supervisors to improve techniques to manage and support remote workers and address both workplace and home stressors as pandemic concerns linger.
“Managing a remote workforce requires a more personalized approach,” adds Marrs, who notes that the effort can be a challenge for managers who are not accustomed to blurring blended work-and-homelife boundaries.
More frequent and personal communication matters now more than ever, according to Marrs.
So what’s the stress level of those helping others manage remote-work stress?
It’s up 24 percentage points, according to Marrs, who says 63% of ASE’s members reported elevated workplace stress in 2019 versus just 39% the prior year. The statistic is a part of a 2020-21 ASE survey conducted in partnership with McLean & Company.
As this mix of tensions preoccupies employees and blurs the lines between home and work, employers are on alert. Most of them foresee a mental-health breaking point very soon. Some think we’re already there.
More than 2 in 3 (67%) of U.S. employers expect a mental-health crisis within the next three years, according to a recent study by MetLife.
“I believe that figure is optimistic,” according to Shannon Reed, the HR Manager of Revere Plastics Systems, a multi-state manufacturing company with physical operations in six states.
“Mental health is top-of-mind among executives and a priority among HR Managers,” says Reed, who formerly headed senior talent acquisition departments at Valassis, an employer of more than 7,000 as well as the American Society of Employers.
“COVID has created a perfect storm among employees, many of whom are now de facto caregivers, home educators and all-around crisis experts,” says Reed, who is introducing a “Best Life 360” campaign to help employees navigate unprecedented everyday stressors, including mental health issues.
The biggest among them?
Although norms are changing, the majority of employees still view mental health issues as a weakness and are hesitant to ask for help due to widespread stereotypes, according to Reed.
Alarmed about a seismic increase to the already 5.5 million U.S. workers who say they feel mentally unstable, more than 50% of the employers surveyed in MetLife’s July 2020 study say they will launch anti-stigma campaigns.
Employers hope to break down the negative stigmas that surround mental health and tend to prevent workers from seeking critical early intervention and treatment, according to the MetLife study
Workplace productivity and mental health are interrelated, according to the experts at MetLife, who note that although workplace productivity levels rose during the early months of the pandemic, those same numbers are falling as pandemic-related stressors increase.
One of the challenges, according to MetLife, is that most employees don’t identify with the terminology that defines mental health.
Ask them if they feel burned out or depressed, and they’ll tell you no, according to the MetLIfe study. But if you ask them about experiencing the symptoms of burnout and depression, the numbers tick up.
Only 17% of employees report feeling “depressed” at work, yet, when asked, 41% of employees report feeling tired and lethargic, having sleep issues, losing interest in things that used to provide pleasure and overall “feeling down.”
One of the biggest things that employers can do to support their workforce is to build its resiliency, according to a recent report by Cigna, which found 63% of full-time workers have low to moderate resilience levels.
“The lower a person’s resilience is, the less likely they will be able to overcome adversity,” says Dr. Robert Hamilton, an Atlanta-based medical executive for Cigna.
Resiliency matters, according to Cigna experts who note that compared to the least resilient employees, the most resilient employees have better mental health — 89% versus 49%.
Employers need to act quickly, they say, recommending that employers vest in a range of support, including programs and behaviors.
Resilience tends to be lowest among people who are isolated or lonely.
“If you don’t have friends, coworkers, or groups to build yourself up, you’re more at risk not have the resilience to overcome things like the COVID pandemic or furloughs,” says Hamilton.
“You can’t take a pill for loneliness,” says Dr. Sheria Robinson-Lane in an interview in Bridge Magazine.
“Openness is important,” says Reed. “We’ve got to be more honest and transparent about our own challenges with burnout, stressors and depression.”
Companies also need to promote mental health as a shared problem and make it a more normal part of conversations about overall health and wellness, according to Reed and other HR reps interviewed.
“Being more open about mental health requires employers to become more open to conventional and non-conventional ways people address mental-health challenges,” says Reed.
That includes CBD, and, in some cases, marijuana, according to the HR expert.
“Not many of us (HR executives) have the time or inclination to police the occasional and legal use of substances that in many cases have proven far less harmful than alcohol, which has extraordinarily high costs when abused,” says Reed
“The blending of home- and work-life boundaries coupled with the elevated stress levels of our pandemic lives signal the need to adjust workplace standards,” adds Reed.
With CBD and marijuana use at all-time highs and stable, if not elevated, worker-productivity rates, it only follows that employers recognize that some of the things once perceived as having negative consequences when used responsibly may actually result in good.
“As more HR managers become familiar with substances like CBD and marijuana, you are going to witness a sea-change in attitudes about its use,” says Reed. “As the job market continues to tighten, it’s important that we don’t let outdated substance-use policies stand in the way of good (job) candidates.”
One unexpected benefit of cannabis use is reduced absenteeism and workers comp claims, according to a published report in Market Watch.
In states where cannabis became fully legal, 20% fewer workers between the ages of 40 and 62 said they received any worker’s compensation in the past year compared to modeling of those same states if they hadn’t authorized full recreational use, according to Temple University Professor Catherine Maclean who analyzed Bureau of Labor Statistics surveys as a part of a study analyzing the trend.
The average payouts in those states dropped $21.98, compared to a baseline of roughly $100.
Market Watch reports the findings echo Maclean’s past research, which found a 13% decline in workers’ compensation claims for older adults as medical marijuana statutes spread from 1990 to 2012.
“The CBD and marijuana industry needs to keep in front of policymakers, benefits providers, employers and HR managers to remind them to re-evaluate their use policies in regard to legal products,” according to a financial technology source, who says that the fact that about 50% of new hires specifically ask about mental-health benefits is a good indication of the growing need for mental health services — and less conventional solutions.
“These just aren’t just legal conversations any longer,” says the financial technology executive and VP of Human Resources. “Employees are facing extraordinary challenges at home and in the workplace. In many cases, the two are now blended and incredibly stressful. Consequently, these issues are resurfacing as productivity, disability and recruitment challenges.”
The combination of the pandemic, political upheaval, racial injustice issues and economic recovery concerns have created a perfect storm for HR managers as well as the employees they serve, according to a multinational media company source, who says employees appreciate employers who not only recognize and are sensitive to new demands but are finding creative ways to help.
“Tech companies have led the way on so many workplace culture issues,” she says. “Watch where they go and the industry will likely follow. Mental health issues are escalating. We’ve got an on-demand culture that needs more creative and immediate solutions today.”
Although many workplaces aren’t stocking CBD gummies or offering infused coffee and beverage blends in their break rooms or employee assistance plans now, that does not necessarily mean that they won’t soon.
“Given the statistics that show more adults than ever are using CBD and cannabis products and the fact that, for the most part, jobs are getting done “just fine,” Is an indicator that a market-related adjustment will likely follow,” says the media executive.
Policy is key.
On a legal front, law firms like Jackson Lewis are issuing updated policy recommendations, particularly as it relates to medical marijuana users who are protected from employment discrimination.
The firm also advises clients regarding regulatory shifts, which in some jurisdictions do not permit testing for marijuana or discipline based on positive marijuana drug-test results.
“Employers must be sensitive to potential disability discrimination claims (under state-law equivalents of the Americans with Disabilities Act) when applicants or employees state that they use marijuana or CBD for medical purposes that are permitted under applicable state laws,” says Kathryn Russo, an attorney with Jackson Lewis and a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) editorial contributor.
“They (employers) should understand that in some regions, it is no longer lawful to have a zero-tolerance policy for marijuana or CBD use,” adds Russo. “They must be familiar with the laws of the states in which they operate when addressing off-duty medical marijuana or CBD use by applicants and employees.”
Notwithstanding, employers do have rights and will continue to exercise them, according to Russo.
“Employers still have the right to get involved in employee CBD and marijuana use when a potential safety risk may be posed in the workplace,” says Russo. “They (employers) still maintain the right to prohibit the use and possession of marijuana and CBD in the workplace and to prohibit impairment by any substance in the workplace.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms recently issued an executive order suspending pre-employment drug screenings for public employees in non-safety sensitive positions, categorizing the drug-testing requirements as “outdated and costly barriers to onboarding new talent in the city of Atlanta.”
New York City, Washington D.C., and Nevada bar employers from mandating pre-employment drug testing, but they have exceptions for safety-sensitive positions and jobs regulated by federal programs that require drug testing.
With medically prescribed and recreational cannabis permitted in many states and an ever-tightening labor market, many employers are beginning to re-examine their current policies regarding CBD and cannabis usage in light of a changing landscape.
Helping people hone in on what they can control in their immediate environments is key, according to Hamilton who notes that it’s that sense of personal power and autonomy that “prevents a sense of hopelessness.
”Given that medical and recreational marijuana use is becoming more acceptable, some HR experts predict that within the next five to 10 years, the majority of workplace-related guidelines regarding these substances will all but be eliminated.
“You have to consider the needs of the business in addition to any applicable state laws,” says Clark Hill Attorney Anne-Marie Welch. “Federal contractors, drivers and workers in other safety-sensitive positions may be subject to drug-free workplace laws whereas general office workers may not. Employers that are struggling to fill vacant positions might want to relax their standards.”
More and more employers appear to be treating marijuana use like alcohol use and allowing recreational off-duty use, Welch observes, particularly during the height of pandemic-related labor shortages.
“As the law’s tolerance has increased, employers’ tolerance has increased as well,” says Welch.
“This will only continue if President Biden’s administration moves forward with its decriminalization efforts,” says Welch, who notes that employers may have less discretion in the matter and, legally, may be required to be more tolerant of marijuana and CBD usage under the ADA.
“It will be more important for employers to keep on top of the legal landscape in this area moving forward,” says Welch.
A growing number of employers. like MaineHealth no longer tests workers for the active ingredient in marijuana unless safety needs or federal rules require it.
Policy changes are becoming more common among business clients, according to Kristin Collins, an attorney with Portland law firm Preti Flaherty.
“The trend has been to take it out of their testing policies because (marijuana) use is so widespread and the testing doesn’t even come close to pinpointing whether the person is using on the job or not,” Collins says in a Press Herald interview.
Regardless the motivation, there are clear signals that employers will continue to move toward a more Zen state as it relates to marijuana and CBD use guidelines, workplace culture and proactive mental health programs.
Editor’s Note: Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, the competitive employment market and stringent confidentiality surrounding workplace policies, we agreed to protect several of our sources’ identities to facilitate a more open dialogue regarding dynamic cultural changes underway in the workplace.