The COVID-19 crisis has radically changed the working lives of all of us. How has this affected the mental well-being of employees? And how does that differ for people in essential and non-essential professions? During the first three months of the COVID-19 crisis Ward van Zoonen and Claartje ter Hoeven of Erasmus University investigated this among 313 employees with essential and non-essential jobs.
What were the most important changes in the work life of people in the Netherlands in that initial period?
Claartje: People in non-essential professions, such as bankers and consultants, had to stay at home, and many of them suddenly had empty agendas. Meetings that were not so important were postponed; events were rescheduled. And the interaction with their colleagues suddenly fell away to a large extent.
Ward: And people in essential professions, such as care workers and police officers, had to deal with a higher workload than usual. They suddenly had to comply with new rules and procedures at work. Think, for instance, of the enforcement of new regulations concerning the pandemic and the extra pressure on care workers.
And how did people experience these changes?
Claartje: In both groups, the changes caused anxiety and reduced mental well-being. Although everyone felt the effects on mental well-being, the underlying reasons differed from group to group.
Ward: We see that essential employees mainly suffered from extra stress and work pressure when carrying out their tasks, which impacts the mental well-being of these employees. While social aspects mainly influenced the mental well-being of non-essential employees, they suffered more from social isolation.
Even before the crisis, there were people who regularly or even always worked at home. What do you know about how they experience working from home?
Claartje: We know from research that the possibility and flexibility of working from from home can have many advantages for employees. For example, some people choose to (partly) work at home because it allows them to organise their lives more easily or efficiently. But having to work full-time from home is, of course, a different story.
You conducted this study from March 2020, when the first COVID-19 restrictions were announced, to the end of May 2020, when the rules were relaxed. Do you think you will find different results if you repeat the study?
Ward: What I see in other studies is that for non-essential staff, social isolation has become a much bigger problem. Where people were fine with video calling in the beginning, now they have more difficulty with it. People need physical encounters and eye contact.
In addition, you can't keep postponing projects, meetings and deadlines, so at some point, the non-essential employees had to go back to work. And so they start experiencing more work stressors again.
Claartje: It has also become more intense for the essential workers. For example, for nurses who have been working in intensive care for more than a year with COVID-19 patients, that adds up. They experience high work pressure, constantly having to put on protective suits and watch people die. This certainly has an impact on their mental well-being.
What can organisations do for the mental well-being of employees during a pandemic?
Claartje: Essential and non-essential employees have very different needs in this situation, and as an organisation, you can respond to that in different ways. It is important that as an organisation you ensure that there is a safe and healthy working environment. So for essential workers, make sure you have enough face masks, protective equipment and clear instructions.
Ward: And for non-essential employees who can no longer rely on those daily interactions with colleagues on the shop floor, the organisations' quality of communication about the changes taking place is essential to counteract negative mental health issues. As far as I'm concerned, this pandemic has made it clear that it's not so much about the tasks we accomplish and the projects and awards we win, but more importantly the people we work with. That social connection is crucial for people's well-being.
Claartje: As an organisation, you can do all kinds of things to ensure that people still feel that connection, such as organising online congresses, digital pub quizzes and walking meetings. This may not be suitable for every employee, but such initiatives can reduce the feeling of social isolation a little.
What changes do you think the pandemic is bringing or should bring to the work of non-essential employees?
Ward: Employers are now starting to think about whether to force their employees to work in the office again or whether they should be allowed to work partly or fully from home. Those are two very different approaches, and it will be interesting to see what the consequences are for the well-being of employees.
In any case, organisations that give people the choice to work (partly) from home after the crisis must take the social aspects of work into account and safeguard them.
Claartje: The pandemic has put a magnifying glass on all kinds of processes, such as the physical complaints people have because of all the computer work. I think we need to move to a totally different system, where, for example, we no longer consider it normal to suffer mentally from work. But I don't think we've come that far because of the pandemic.
Finally, what is going to change or should change for essential workers?
Ward: It is telling that the professions that have so often demonstrated for better working conditions are experiencing an even higher workload and more problems in their work processes during the COVID-19crisis. The issues they already had are being magnified, but these are structural problems going on for years. An individual hospital or school cannot solve that by hiring two extra employees. Other solutions are needed. I hope the pandemic will help to improve things for workers in these occupational groups.
About Claartje ter Hoeven
Professor Claartje ter Hoeven is the scientific director and coordinator of the interdisciplinary research and master programme ‘Organisational Dynamics in the Digital Society’, connected to the ESSB strategy Meeting the Future Society. Her scholarly interests encompass constant connectivity, remote work, digital labor, and employee well-being. Currently, she is the principal investigator of the ERC project “The Ghost worker’s Well-being: An Integrative Framework”.
About Ward van Zoonen
Dr. Ward van Zoonen is associate professor of the interdisciplinary research and master programme ‘Organisational Dynamics in the Digital Society’, connected to the ESSB strategy Meeting the Future Society. His research explores how technological advancements shape the present and future of work by affording and constraining the job conditions of workers in diverse labor settings. His research relates to how the implementation of technological innovations, including algorithmic technologies, affects the ways workers connect, communicate, and coordinate their work.