Updated: Jun 5, 2020
by Caroline Knight, Sharon K Parker, and Anita C Keller
Never before have so many people been forced to work from home so rapidly. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, how, where, and when work is done has changed massively in the space of weeks, often with little planning. How has the changing nature of work impacted people’s mental health?
It is not hard to imagine some of the challenges: new routines need to be established; some people are still home schooling their children during the working day; and partners need to negotiate home working space. Further, some workers are worried they will lose their job, and become part of the large and growing numbers of unemployed . It is therefore an imperative to understand the mental health of people working from home.
Psychological distress during COVID-19
Preliminary results from a large study we launched in Australia revealed shocking results (Figure 1). During late April and early May 2020, well over one third (39.3%, N=301) of all participants working from home most days of the week (N=798) reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. This is over triple the amount of people experiencing such distress in Australia in 2018 (13%) .
Figure 1: Percentage of population experiencing high or very high psychological distress in Australia . Note: In the current study, a small minority of participants (N=90) were from countries other than Australia.
Of course, many factors are likely to be contributing to this high distress, including general worries about the impact of COVID-19 on health and the economy. But given that work is a big part of our lives and has massively changed in recent weeks, is any of this distress related to the quality of people’s work and their work arrangements whilst working from home?
Work and psychological distress
Some people thrive when working from home, and appreciate the lack of commuting and the greater autonomy to pace their own work. But our results also show that some people are not thriving. We identified five aspects of work which were significantly and strongly correlated with, and predicted, poor psychological distress. These work characteristics can help us understand why some people are experiencing such distress at this time, and how improving work might be a powerful pathway to better mental health.
In particular, our analyses showed that that the following work characteristics explained high levels of variance in psychological distress after controlling for key demographics (age, gender): job security; underload; technological issues; poor communication; and close monitoring/distrust.
Predictor #1 Job insecurity
Currently, job insecurity is particularly heightened for some home workers, who also report very high distress. Many businesses have closed in an effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus, resulting in layoffs, particularly of those on casual contracts . The economy is suffering, and if people still have a job, they are likely to be worried about losing that job, and the likelihood of obtaining replacement employment. In our sample, 13% (N=63) reported high or very high job insecurity, with 12.1% (N=59) specifically believing they will ‘soon lose their job’, and 19.8% (N=96) feeling ‘uncertain about the future of their job’.
Predictor #2 Underload
Not having enough to do at work, or being ‘underloaded’, is increasingly being recognised as a reason for stress and low job satisfaction . In our sample, 10.2% (N=79) of the sample reported high or very high underload. Some people might be finding that they cannot carry out some tasks or job roles from home, such as checking office stocks and supplies, taking a shift on reception, or conducting health and safety checks. This can mean that employees are left with little to do, or are forced to take on dull and unstimulating tasks, such as routine administration. Not having enough to do, yet being expected to work, is a recipe for stress.
Predictor #3 Technological hassles
We’ve all been there – the computer screen freezes, the audio disappears during a virtual meeting, the picture goes fuzzy and is out of sync with the audio – the number of things that can and do go wrong with the technology we use can sometimes seem endless. Problems like these are known to contribute to work stress and feeling frustrated . With the vast numbers of people currently working at home and forced to use new methods to communicate with colleagues and get work done, it seems inevitable that such issues are highly related to distress. Indeed, in our sample, 10% (N=77) of those working from home most of the time reported high or very high problems with technology.
Predictor #4 Poor communication through technology
Honing the skill of communication through various different technological mediums is a necessary rite of passage for home workers. All too easily, a sender’s seemingly innocuous message may be perceived differently by the recipient. This problem was evident in our results, with 25.1% of participants reporting at least a moderate amount of miscommunication through means such as email, Teams, and Zoom, and 16.1% reported a high or very high amount. This included perceiving that they had received rude electronic messages from colleagues and/or clients, or that others misinterpreted their own messages.
Predictor #5 Close monitoring and distrust by one’s manager
13.7% of our participants commonly reported that they did not feel trusted by their manager to work from home, and 13.5% felt closely monitored by their manager. For example, 15.3% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that their manager was ‘always looking over my shoulder’, and for those with high or very high distress, this increased to 36.1%. It might be expected that the more experience an individual had with working from home, the less that person might feel distrusted by a supervisor. Although 42% reported at least 6 months such experience, this was not related to feeling distrusted.
Figure 2: Percentage of participants who agree or strongly agree that they are experiencing key work-related predictors of psychological distress
How can individuals and managers help promote employee well-being when working from home?
Is there anything that can be done about these work pressures that people are facing? Fortunately, a large body of research suggests that work can be designed to be more satisfying, less stressful and more productive [5,6,7].
For example, one strategy is to allow employees to ‘craft their jobs’ . Job crafting allows individuals to proactively increase the fit between their job and their interests and skills. This leads to increased engagement in work, better well-being, and performance [8,9,10].
Encouraging employees to learn new work skills, suggesting new projects they might be interested in, or expanding the tasks they are particularly good at, are some ways in which you can help employees make their jobs more stimulating and motivating, and reduce underload.
Another strategy is for managers to encourage meaningful connections with colleagues to help employees gain support, improve communication, troubleshoot hassles, and forge strong collaborative relationships . This includes understanding the issues that employees are experiencing. For example, if technological issues are a concern, better IT support could be arranged, or a morning tea could encourage employees to talk to each other about the challenges they are facing in their work.
Talking about these things openly helps everyone understand that they are not alone and can reveal resolutions and acceptable new ways of working.
Finally, autonomy, or having control over where, when and how one’s work is done, is one of the most important work factors for promoting positive well-being, performance, and productivity [5,6,12].
Allowing individuals the flexibility to choose working hours, for example, could help reduce home-work conflict and enable employees to manage caring and other responsibilities effectively. It also demonstrates trust in employees, and a willingness to support them in managing their home, work and other demands.
In summary, the key point is that although distress is high, and several work factors related to working from home are likely to be contributing to this, there are things that managers and employees can do to reduce the amount of distress that individuals are experiencing and make this a more pleasant time for all.
Read the SIOP article on this topic.
Listen to Caroline Knight's interview around working from home causing distress.
Find out more about this Thrive at Work from Home study and the findings.
Visit our website for resources to help employees and managers thrive at work from home.
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