There’s no doubt that hybrid working has completely changed our physical worlds – for many of us, we are commuting into the office less and working from home office spaces more.
Naturally, this brings practical conveniences, like saving time and the fact we can do laundry in between video calls, or more easily check in on elderly parents or pick up young children from school. It also means, for many, that we move our bodies around less in working hours, with meetings happening in Zooms rather than rooms. It often means a rise in out of hours email checking.
But how is the seismic shift affecting our minds?
This is an area AXA Health has become expert in, having run a study on Mind Health for the last three years (last year’s report here, or summary here). We spoke to AXA Health’s Head of Wellbeing Chris Tomkins, ahead of his appearance on the Watercooler stage, to find out more on what contributes to positive mind health in this era of work.
You’ve been at AXA Health for 12 and half years but, before you made the switch into the health industry, you were business development director at Unilever. Why did you make this move?
I actually started off in women’s health, responsible for leading the creation of products like the first digital pregnancy test in a Unilever subsidiary called UniPath. From there, I went to work for Unilever’s blue-sky unit and that’s where I started the career journey in terms of changing lifestyles.
Back then, the SVP said: “Look, we’re spending millions on this project called Healthy Ageing. We’ve discovered that people need to eat right, be active, sleep right, avoid smoking and the question was, people know what to do, but they don’t do it. Why is that?”
Ah! Whenever we write about behavioural change or science, like in this article, we tend to get lots of views. Tell me more about that.
Well, I think behaviour change is a bit of a Holy Grail.
There are a lot of theories of behaviour change that are really good. But there are also a lot of bad applications of that science. Lots of people like to claim that they have achieved behaviour change but, in many cases, what they’ve done is not necessarily able to be reproduced.
However, we have seen some good progress in this field too, with things like the Digital Diabetes Prevention Programme – that we were involved in with the NHS – so there is a growing understanding of the combination of the human expert to support the change, and the role of technology to facilitate it. I think we’re going to see a lot of development over the next few years in this space.
Click on the video above to see Chris talk about how healthy our minds are in this new hybrid world of work
In your current role, you’ve been doing a huge amount of research into what constitutes good ‘Mind Health’ and what contributes positively to it. How healthy are our minds in the new hybrid world of work?
The key here is to first answer: what is hybrid working?
It’s not about ‘popping’ into the office every so often – that would be defined as remote working. Hybrid working is about a regular contact point.
Our research has shown that those people who are working remotely are not doing as well from a mind health perspective as those working in a hybrid way, because the workplace is a good place to build social connection – which is good for mind health. This is especially important for younger workers.
It’s not entirely surprising that people who work remotely are lonelier and a lot less likely to flourish – which is a measure of good mind health (see here for more on flourishing). They are more likely to leave a company as well. So there is the danger that a fully remote working environment could be a bit of a ‘velvet rut’.
But then, perhaps, forcing people back into the office, when they’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of flexibility to work from home, is not going to make employees feel good, either. What are your thoughts on companies trying to do that currently?
There are some really big lessons coming out now in terms of what employers should be doing. Those which have basically said ‘everyone should get back in the office pronto’ are in a challenging position because the hybrid genie is out of the bottle. It’s now about finding the right balance.
Do you have a sense of which types of employees are flourishing and which are not in this new world of work?
Yes, in terms of the skills and traits for mind health.
Last year, for example, we saw that men were much more likely to flourish than women, so this year we’ve really dug into understanding that more.
But this is much more complex than saying it’s just ‘about gender’ because, actually, we found, for instance, men in Asian workplaces reporting the same kind of feelings. For me, it comes back to lived, everyday experiences of how you’re treated and the need to be treated with respect and kindness for good mind health. To unpack this more you’ll have to come to the AXA Health sessions at The Watercooler, where we will also be giving out copies of our new research hot off the press!
Were there any other broad ‘types’ of employees that you discovered were struggling more with their mind health?
Yes. For me one of the most interesting things is when we think of the younger generations coming up the ranks, we tend to think of young dynamic people taking on the world. However, they seem less resilient to change. Actually, skills for good mind health typically mature with age, which really underlines the value of the older workforce; often their mind health is stronger, while their physical health may be weaker, developing risks around blood pressure, weight and diabetes.
Why do you think the younger generations are showing less resilience than you might expect?
Well, there is a big relationship between tech, social media usage and the impact upon the flourishing mindset. In fact, if you take those factors away [social media and tech], people aged 16-24 who don’t use them are more likely to flourish than all the other age groups up to retirement.
Are there really 16-24 year olds that aren’t using social media and tech?!
Yes, they do exist!
I think the difference is the degree to which you use it.
But how do you manage this in a society in which these things are becoming ingrained, even though you might know they are not necessarily good for your mind health?
Generation Z is wising up to this because they’ve had so many bad experiences with tech now, for so long. Some are developing skills to put it in its place and seeking much more authentic experiences.
What advice do you have, then, for employers that want their young employees to thrive and, also, to the readers here who are parents grappling with these issues?
What we’ve demonstrated is that there is a skillset people can build in terms of dealing with others, society, their own responses, etc. Also, it’s not just about skills, either. It’s also about beliefs about oneself that feed into mind health.
These key skills for mind health grow and develop over time. And what we see is that the young people who have been quicker to develop these skills and beliefs are much more likely to flourish.
To link back to what you said about tech and social media, then, could it be that these things can be negative to mind health because they can damage a person’s sense of self?
Well, social media does affect your sense of self because when you are consuming it, you are seeing the edited highlights of everyone else’s life. These are going to look better than your personal average, because everyone experiences life as an average of ups and downs. If you just see all someone else’s ‘ups’ then of course you’ll start thinking ‘oh, they have got a better life than me’.
But I think it’s important to note – and I am hypothesising here – that this human tendency to compare has always been here. But the new nature of work, which requires more interaction than the manufacturing era, for instance, means comparison is much more prevalent and easy.
So what are these skills for good mind health that can be developed?
You’ll have to come to my Watercooler session to hear the answer to that one!
The Global AXA Mind Health Study was released on February 28th 2023. You can download it here. Key insights from the report will also be discussed at our live roundtable from 1.30pm – 2.30pm on Tuesday 14th March: “The next steps to achieving flourishing mind health for the WHOLE workforce”.
To meet Chris in person, hear more about this report and how healthy our minds our in this new hybrid world of work, come along to our sister event the Watercooler on April 25th and 26th, 2023.
The Watercooler, named in recognition of those crucial moments of connection between employees, is a free to attend conference and exhibition which demonstrates that wellbeing IS the future of work. For themes that were ‘hot topics’ at last year’s event, like line manager wellbeing, see this article.
Taking place at Excel London, The Watercooler event is where you can gather to join ideas together, make connections, learn from peers’ experiences and find the right solutions for your organisation – whatever its size and shape.
For reasons why this is a must-attend event for anyone interested in workplace wellbeing, see this article here.
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