Kara Ng and David Holman argue that the pandemic represents an opportunity to make positive changes in the workplace.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been affected by the pandemic. For over a year many aspects of our lives have changed because of the uncertainty brought about by the virus.
Our working lives are no exception. But what have been the effects of these changes on the way we work, on our well-being, and on our work-life balance?
These were among the very questions we explored at a recent conference we organised where we invited leading researchers to share their insights into these difficult questions. Titled Viral Strain? Working life during the COVID Pandemic – and hosted by the European Association of Work and Organisational Psychology and the British Psychological Society – we drew together an international audience of more than 700 attendees from industry and academia to discuss these issues.
Contrary to what we may think, many studies presented showed that COVID-19 has not significantly worsened our well-being. While this is reassuring, it’s important to note that these general findings mask a variety of experiences people have faced throughout the pandemic, with some employees having to juggle full-time work and care, and others dealing with social isolation at home. Our speakers highlighted that individuals, like leaders and family members, can have a strong impact on our experiences.
COVID-19 and mental health
In the wake of the lockdowns, mental health has never been in greater focus, but our conference heard that there had been variety in workers’ experiences of mental health during lockdowns.
One study based on a representative sample of German workers found that perceived stressfulness of the pandemic declined throughout 2020 and then increased slightly during the second German lockdown. This study also found that lockdowns only had a small effect on mental health and there were no major declines in physical or mental health.
Other speakers reported similar findings. For example, a study in Australia found that, for most employees, stress declined throughout the first three months of lockdown, while employees who did experience increased stress eventually saw this plateau.
How we design our work
One of our speakers, Professor Sharon Parker from Curtin University, noted that psychological distress was high during lockdown and how the SMART model can be used to redesign work to mitigate pandemic-induced work-related stress.
Namely, she argued that leaders can craft work so that it is more stimulating (e.g., varied, meaningful work tasks), offers mastery experiences (through constructive feedback), enhances agency (autonomy and decision-making involvement), has rewarding relationships, and has tolerable demands (manageable workloads and hours).
Other speakers also reported that job autonomy during the pandemic benefited employees’ work engagement and communication quality, while preventing team conflict and stress. Another study has shown that while working from home did not necessarily affect employee well-being during the pandemic, when home demands (like childcare) became high, they were likely to induce burnout.
A central message from all these speakers was that organisations and leaders can take positive steps to mitigate the impact of pandemic-induced changes by proactively redesigning work so that it better suits the needs of employees.
When a house is simultaneously a workplace, school and home it is no wonder that the line between work and life becomes blurred.
Professor Tammy Allen from the University of South Florida shared her research on methods to establish boundaries between work and home. She discussed how individuals can create ‘physical’ boundaries, like a door or separate room, while it is also helpful to have spouses and employers who respect boundaries by discouraging overwork and encouraging breaks. Echoing Parker’s findings, she advocated autonomy to empower employees and more social support, especially when working from home.
We also heard how women appeared to have borne the brunt of lockdown labour. Among dual-earner couples, wives most commonly did all or most childcare while still working full-time. These couples reported the least family cohesion and greatest relationship tension. Health outcomes were best for couples who alternated childcare and working days.
Leaders can also influence our out-of-work lives. For instance, abusive leaders were more likely to violate boundaries and require employees to always be available.
The pandemic has pushed health and well-being at work further into the public debate, and thus represents an opportunity to make positive changes in the workplace.
However, while working from home has increased during the pandemic, one mustn’t forget that the majority of employees have since returned to their usual place of work.
Looking ahead, responsibility for coping with the pandemic should not rest on individual employees or their managers. Instead, action should be taken by organisations, trade unions, employer organisations and the state through, for example, regulations on working hours, the right to disconnect, and protection from unfair dismissal.
Summing up, our speakers provided a fascinating insight into the changes we have experienced due to COVID. What stuck out was how resilient we are overall, as studies noted little substantial decreases in our well-being.
However, we must not take this at face value and understand the many different situations others have found themselves in, and the role that organisations, governments, and individuals have in making a difference. We hope that COVID has raised awareness of how important working conditions are to our well-being and that positive changes persist as life returns to ‘normal’.
Dr Kara Ng is a Presidential Fellow and David Holman a Professor at Alliance Manchester Business School