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Covid, Work and occupational

Challenging boundaries of work space

Emma Young digests the latest research on working from home during Covid-19.

23 November 2020

Covid-19 has changed our working lives, perhaps for good. Home-working is now common, and many of us have been doing it for months. With changing rules and guidelines, some of us have even gone from home-working to socially distanced office-working, to working back at home again. So what do we know about how these changes are affecting our mental health – and what can we do to make our new working lives better?

How are we feeling? 

In January 2019 (pre-Covid-19), 35 per cent of UK employees surveyed for the CIPD (a professional human resources body) reported that work had a positive impact on their mental health, while 27 per cent said that work had a negative impact. By summer 2020, those figures had shifted to 34 per cent and 26 per cent respectively. On these measures, at least, Covid-19 had no obvious impact.

In this second survey, employees did report high levels of anxiety about contracting the virus at work – but despite this, half of those who were working remotely were looking forward to returning to their workplace. Almost half of all of the people surveyed also reported that social connections at work had worsened. Clearly, although the impact of work itself on our mental health hadn't changed, altered work circumstances were – and are – causing difficulties, which are being further explored…

How bad is home-working? 

'It can be argued that the crisis has led to the most significant, intensive social experiment of digital, home-based working that has ever occurred.'

This statement is from the website of the ongoing Working@home project, led by Abigail Marks at Stirling University, which seeks to understand the impact of this 'experiment'. As the team points out, some commentators have suggested that home-based work is emancipatory, and improves work flexibility. However, the team also notes, 'this new world order, where the home becomes a multi-occupational, multi-person workplace… not only challenges boundaries but also conceptions of the domestic space'. So how is it making us feel?

Overall, not great, according to their initial survey of home workers. One in three reported sharing their home working space, 37 per cent reported that home conflicts have increased, and almost one in four said that they were doing poorly or very poorly in terms of general health. The most commonly cited trigger for household conflict was 'interrupting or being noisy while you work'.

Keys to coping at home

Yanmengqian Zhou at Penn State University and colleagues studied symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as coping strategies among American adults during the first few months of the pandemic. Their study, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, revealed that levels of 'social strain' – someone else making demands, giving criticism or just getting on your nerves – was the most consistent predictor of these symptoms of poor mental health. Anyone who's working at home with their partner is certainly more likely to experience this kind of strain, especially if you have to share the same room.

But the team did also identify helpful strategies for working in the time of Covid-19. They recommend keeping a consistent schedule, reminding yourself that things will get better, finding activities to distract yourself and taking care of others who need help. None of these strategies will stop you irritating each other, but they might at least ease the strain a little.

Based on their own research, Kristen Shockley and Malissa Clark at the University of Georgia also recommend some kind of work-life/home-life boundary activity to replace the lost commute. Just a walk near your home at the start and end of the work day can make it easier to switch between roles, they say.

Overcoming 'presence privilege'

In a recent issue of Occupational Health Science, ten experts were invited to comment on work-related issues associated with Covid-19. Larissa K. Barber at San Diego State University argues that as remote working is now common, it's time to get rid of the 'physical presence privilege'.

Traditionally, Barber writes, 'in-person meetings are preferred over web-conferencing, driving in over logging in'. Being physically present in the workplace is also conflated with work attention and productivity, she adds. Now that remote working is common, Barber thinks it's high time that organisations shift their thinking and also devote energy and resources to making this style of working better for employees.

One way to do this is to respect technological boundaries in the same way that we traditionally respect physical boundaries. 'Barging into a coworker's office, family dinner or even bedroom for an immediate work response is antisocial. Yet we tolerate and encourage similar behaviours in electronic communications,' Barber notes (something that anyone who's ever had a demanding email from their boss outside work hours will appreciate). Clearly, this is not a new problem – but perhaps with a mass shift to remote working, organisations will now feel obliged to set clear technological ground rules, for the benefit of us all.

Regaining control 

The pandemic, and the lockdowns associated with it, have profoundly challenged our autonomy – our sense of being in control of our actions and also seeing an alignment between our behaviour and our personal values and goals (an aspect of autonomy often called 'authenticity'). Autonomy is widely considered to be important for wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, then, there have been a number of studies exploring how Covid-19 has affected it, and how we've felt as a result.

One recent paper, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that while there were spikes in feelings of powerlessness and inauthenticity in the early days of the pandemic, these increases actually started to subside quite rapidly. The team concludes that because a sense of autonomy is so important to us, the participants were making changes in their lives to restore it, even in the face of ongoing stress and restrictions. All kinds of strategies, such as deciding to spend what used to be work commute time on a hobby or exercise, or even just revelling in the sudden ability to wear whatever they wanted for work (below the belt, at least, during Zoom meetings) could have helped.

Other researchers, including Adam Butler at the University of Iowa, in that recent special issue of Occupational Health Science, point to studies finding that higher perceptions of control are associated with reduced stress among nurses. All of this suggests that whatever employers can do to enhance employee autonomy at 'work' – and home-working brings its own challenges, of course – should be good for their mental health.

- Emma Young writes for our Research Digest