Returning to the workplace drives higher well-being but with new expectations

After multiple false starts last year, the return to the office for employees working from home remains in limbo.

At first it looked like it would happen last spring after vaccines for COVID-19 were widely available in the United States. But then came the Delta variant. (Not to mention a lot of people were probably going to hold out until the end of summer regardless.) And then multiple corporate employers said they would push back return dates from post–Labor Day 2021 to January 2022. And then came the Omicron variant, disrupting both the holiday season and any plans to return to office buildings this winter.

While much has been said about employees wanting to remain at home and never go back, there is a large swath of workers who want to get out of their homes and return to general office spaces for various reasons. At many businesses, large and small, office life will probably never look like it did pre-pandemic. But the desire to work from an office is still there.

Improving and maintaining a healthy sense of well-being is linked with a return to activities in real life (not over video calls), and a sense of well-being is higher among employees who have already returned to the workplace, indicating the benefits of working together in person, according to a new report from Lululemon Athletica.

The findings are included in Lululemon’s second annual Global Wellbeing Report, which assessed the global state of holistic well-being across three dimensions: mentally, socially, and physically. Research for the 2021 report was fielded between Oct. 13 and Nov. 15, 2021, and included responses from 10,000 general population adults globally (1,000 within each of 10 markets: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Singapore, South Korea, China, and Japan).

Greater well-being is driven by an increased focus on mental health and better coping strategies.
Courtesy of Lululemon

Last year, Lululemon’s inaugural report covering 2020 was, predictably, bleak, revealing only a fraction of workers who said their employers were supporting their well-being during the pandemic.

But in 2021, it looks as if we had nowhere to go but up. (After 2020, the bar was low.) Overall, Lululemon found well-being edged upward over the course of the year, driven by gains in mental health as people have developed better coping strategies throughout the pandemic. One-third of Americans reported strong well-being across all three dimensions, higher than the global results.

But we still have a long way to go. Almost nine in 10 employees who pivoted to working from home had negative experiences while doing so, including increased workloads, being less physically active while working, a lack of socialization while working with colleagues, and the blurred (or obliterated) lines in work/life balance.

“We know from this year’s data in the Global Wellbeing Report that higher levels of well-being are directly linked with a return to activities in real life,” says Susan Gelinas, senior vice president for people and culture at Lululemon. “Working together in person provides a real sense of connection and community that have been missing for so many during these uncertain times.”

Community plays a vital role in fostering well-being, and yet it is overlooked.
Courtesy of Lululemon

However, while returning to the workplace benefits well-being, many employees are choosing to stay home longer for a multitude of reasons, including concerns over breakout cases of COVID, having less personal time, and for many working parents, they can’t return to the office without adequate access to childcare support.

“Almost half of respondents are looking for more flexibility in hours and location, as well as increased health support, physically and mentally. So employers can continue to support the diverse needs of their workforce by delivering on these areas now—but also in the long term,” Gelinas says.

The lack of personal time and flexibility continues to be most concerning to Generation Z workers, for whom holistic well-being remains an ongoing challenge. Only 21% of Gen Z indicate strong well-being across social, physical, and mental health. On average, the Gen Z index scored lower on mental and social well-being than any other generation, and, in turn, is 1.5 times as likely to not be able to manage stress effectively, citing higher levels of loneliness.

Well-being is directly linked with a return to in-person activities and is higher among those who have returned to the workplace.
Courtesy of Lululemon

From the first to the second Lululemon report, one conclusion remains clear: Most employees still do not feel they are getting the support they need to do their jobs effectively while maintaining their physical and mental health as we continue through this pandemic.

“While we are unsure of what the future will bring with this ever-changing pandemic, we believe it is important for employers to embrace flexibility and to listen to their employees,” Gelinas tells Fortune. “We know the importance of in-person collaboration, but we also care for and invest in the whole person. We believe that people thrive when they live healthy and balanced lives, so this is something we will continue to keep a close eye on.”

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