Stress levels in the Australian workplace are among the highest as we face constant interruptions and upset colleagues

As more and more companies require increased amounts of time spent in the office, employee stress levels are increasing.

A recent study found that 34% of employees reported lower levels of mental health compared to six months ago. Alarmingly, 37% also reported a decline in engagement and sense of belonging.

So why might returning to the office increase employee stress? Research shows that a combination of commuting, cost of living pressures, noisy offices, work culture, interruptions, reduced autonomy and co-worker relationships are contributing to workers’ feel more stressed.

In Gallups’ 2023 State of the Global Workplace Report, the US and Canada and East Asia regions had the highest stress levels at 52%, and Australia and New Zealand had the second highest at 47%. . These results maintain the record high set in 2021.

And an analysis of 382,000 employee exit interviews found that reports of employee burnout have nearly doubled in the past year.

Returning to the office appears to be a contributing factor with 52% of employees preferring flexible/hybrid work to minimize mental health concerns.

So how can returning to the office make employees more stressed?

Noisy offices are a significant source of stress

According to research, when employees return to the workplace, they face what employees dislike most about open-plan offices: noise.

Noise is important for both employee health and performance. Our research shows that relatively moderate levels of open-plan office noise cause a 25% increase in negative mood and a 34% increase in physiological stress.

Constant interruptions and loud conversations have contributed to increased stress levels in the workplace.

In addition to making employees more stressed and irritable, noisy open-plan offices also reduce productivity. Research shows that workers in quieter single-person offices perform 14% better on cognitive tasks than workers in open-plan offices.

Fewer interruptions when working from home

In addition to not having to commute, for many employees, fewer interruptions and less noise from colleagues are some of the key benefits of working from home.

Modern knowledge work requires employees to focus and concentrate for long periods of time. That’s hard to do when colleagues are having impromptu meetings next to your desk or discussing their weekends as you struggle to meet deadlines.

Read more: It’s not just fun: nature in the workplace makes employees happier and healthier

In many open-plan offices, the drive for increased interaction and collaboration comes at the expense of the ability to focus and concentrate. When distractions make it difficult for employees to concentrate, cognitive and emotional resources are depleted. The result is increased stress and errors, which degrade performance.

Research shows it takes about 23 minutes to get back to work after an interruption. Being constantly interrupted by impromptu questions and random conversations will not only reduce productivity but can also lead to withdrawal from work.

To deal with unwanted noise and interruptions, more and more employees are wearing headphones while working.

Keep track of your employees

As opposition to returning to the office continues, companies including Meta, Google, JP Morgan Chase and Amazon have announced that they will use technology to monitor building access card data and the use of systems to track non-compliant employees. Employees were informed that repeated violations could result in dismissal.

A recent study by the American Psychological Association found that employees who were monitored by technology were 14% more stressed than those who were not monitored.

And 42% of supervised employees intend to look for a new job within the next 12 months, compared with 23% of unsupervised employees.

Employees who are monitored while at work report higher levels of feeling unimportant in the workplace (to their coworkers). [32% vs. 17% of those not monitored] or to their employer [36% vs. 22%]), they are not taken seriously (26% vs. 17%) and are micromanaged (51% vs. 33%).

Travel is stressful and expensive

Lost time and travel costs due to increasing cost of living pressures are a consistent theme as to why employees don’t want to return to the office five days a week.

The 2022 Australian Real Travel Report surveyed 5,000 Australians and found the average daily travel cost is now $20. According to a recent study published by Fortune, the time Americans spent commuting in 2022 increased by 239 hours, a 20% increase compared to 2019 figures.

But it’s not just the cost in time and money that’s worrisome: commuting also puts more stress on employees. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the relationship between travel and stress found that objective measures of travel (distance traveled and time spent) were positively related to Stress results, especially cognitive stress.

Our colleagues may be part of the problem

Returning to the office is great for social connection and can lead to many positive work outcomes. However, our coworkers can also be a source of stress.

During the research process, I was often told by my colleagues’ employees that they ate unpleasant-smelling foods at their desks, made loud noises while eating, and made animated personal phone calls right next to them. . Then there are those who stay in sweaty gym gear the rest of the day after a lunchtime workout.

Perhaps most famous in the annals of annoying co-workers is the case of an employee at a research station in Antarctica who stabbed a colleague who insisted on telling him the end of a book he was planning to read. .

Workplace culture is still very important

Returning to the office will make the organization’s culture clearer. More than a quarter of workers (26%) say a toxic work culture is negatively impacting their mental health.

Employee stress, poor performance and turnover are inevitable if organizations are more task-focused or just ask their employees to return to work for the sake of alternative work. because of the results. Likewise, if poor leadership is accepted and understaffing is the norm, low morale and high turnover are likely to occur.

Read more: Does your employer have to say whether they are monitoring you through your work computer?

A well-designed workspace that includes acoustic treatment, psychological safety, effective leadership, a healthy organizational culture, and work arrangements that support employee autonomy and wellbeing are vital. important to reduce stress and employee turnover.

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