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How has Covid-19 affected people's work-related wellbeing?


Having a job is really good for our wellbeing. Having a good job, one that gives us a sense of purpose, security, autonomy and where relationships and skills are fostered and developed, is even better for us. Conversely, the negative impact of unemployment on our wellbeing is one one of the biggest, longest lasting and most robust in the evidence base. Re-employment, especially within a year, just as strongly and robustly recovers wellbeing.

Most people’s jobs in the UK have changed in some way due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its response. Jobs have been lost, people have been furloughed, work places, equipment and PPE, commutes and job demands have all adapted to this ongoing crisis. We have been gathering evidence on how changes to our work, both positive and negative, alongside other wellbeing impacts, are affecting different people in the UK.

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What has changed, and who it has changed for

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Implications for a wellbeing-based recovery

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Measures and resources you can use

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What has changed?

Jobs have been at risk as whole sectors have been shut down and activity has contracted since February 2020. 

  • Many people working in hospitality, the arts and the construction sector still have restrictions placed on their work: By the end of June, 9.4 million employees had been placed on furlough since the Job Retention Scheme was introduced. People in small and micro-businesses and those under the age of 17 were more likely to have been furloughed.

    Seventy three percent of employees in the accommodation and food services sector, 66% in arts, recreation and entertainment, and 59% in construction had been furloughed. Five million remained on furlough in July 2020, with 2.5 million of these having been away for three months or more. There were also around 250,000 people away from work (people who felt like they were still employed, but weren’t working, or qualifying for furlough) because of the pandemic and receiving no pay in July 2020.

  • Employees with the lowest incomes, disabled people and those of Black and Asian ethnicity have been most affected by reduced hours, furlough or job loss: Nearly two in three (65%) of those employed prior to the Covid-19 crisis who were already in deep poverty have had their working hours or earnings reduced, or been furloughed, or lost their job. This compares to one in three (35%) who were employed - and sat at 20% or above the poverty line - prior to the Covid-19 crisis. Employed disabled people were 4 percentage points more likely to have experienced a negative outcome than non-disabled people. Those of Black and Asian ethnicity were more likely than white people.

Formal paid employment can conflict with unpaid care work commitments, which have also been affected by Covid-19.

Caring responsibilities

The nature of our work, our commute, and workplace have also changed:

  • In April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home, enabling people to maintain employment, while being less exposed to Covid-19 risks. Workers who earn more tend to work in jobs with more scope for home working, whilst frontline workers were the least likely to be able to work from home.

  • Key workers, unable to work from home, face risks of exposure to Covid-19. A third of Black people and people of minority ethnicities were working outside their home during lockdown (33%). This is compared with almost a quarter of white people (27%). Just under three in ten Black and ethnic minority people (28%) were categorised as key workers. Greater proportions of Black people, and other minority ethnicity key workers (32%) reported that they were not given adequate PPE, compared with their white counterparts (20%). 

Why this matters for wellbeing and wellbeing inequalities

While we hope that the health impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic will be temporary, the changes to many of our jobs are likely to last much longer.    

We can expect years - rather than months - for the labour market to fully recover. Job losses are likely to be longer-term, and increase as the furlough scheme comes to a close. There is clear evidence that prolonged spells of unemployment, particularly while young, can cause long-lasting ‘scars’ on an individual’s future earnings, employment prospects and health and wellbeing and evidence from previous recessions indicate that the most severe effects on unemployment are among young people recently leaving education and those with fewer qualifications. For people in sectors that have been most affected, even those that remain employed are likely to be more concerned by job security.

Other changes to the way we work may also endure. More remote working in the future for example can reduce commuting time. In wellbeing terms, commuting can save employees money, introduce more flexibility to the working day and between jobs in different locations. Yet remote working can also affect the relationships we have with our colleagues and can conflict with home life. During the lockdown, women were more likely to say they were finding working from home difficult. 

"As this analysis highlights, the pandemic has already transformed working life as we know it for millions of people. For many, the crisis has exacerbated insecurity, with large numbers still on furlough, ineligible for redundancy pay, and limited support available when the job retention scheme ends.

The Government has rightly recognised that the COVID-19 crisis will endure throughout the winter. But with the forthcoming Jobs Support Scheme limited to ‘viable’ work, those in the sectors most affected by ongoing distancing measures – ranging from retail and hospitality to tourism and live entertainment – face a cliff edge when furlough ends this month.

We urgently need to see more investment in job creation, employment support programmes, adult education and social security to ensure workers across the economy are supported over the challenging months to come and are equipped to help drive the economic recovery in 2021."

Ben Harrison, Work Foundation Director


How can this evidence shape a wellbeing-based recovery?

  • Maintain and create jobs to reduce the number and duration of unemployment spells

  • Value and protect the most at-risk workers - low paid, insecure employment, including those in settings that have been most exposed to the virus

  • Use objective and subjective measures together to maximise employee wellbeing.  For example, do employees have access to all of the indicated PPE (objective measure) and do employees feel safe from threats and physical hazards in their work environment (subjective)

  • Recognise the importance, and juggle, of paid with unpaid care work, particularly for women

  • Adult learning has particular benefits to life satisfaction for people who are unemployed, have no educational qualifications or are over 50

  • Identify and conserve the positive changes to people’s work - enabling flexibility, reducing commuting through working remotely where viable

  • Provide people working in new environments with the resources and conditions necessary to thrive, including providing appropriate and ergonomic work spaces, as well as technology, such as high speed internet and remote file sharing systems.

Measures and Resources

Resources to use

Earlier in the year, we shared a series of 12 emails which provided guidance to employers to support employees through the changes that they may have faced as a result of Covid-19. These looked at the evidence behind the various issues affecting people’s wellbeing at work, from those facing burnout working in intense and stressful environments, to those needing a sense of purpose while on furlough. You can sign up to receive these emails now.

The Covid-age Tool can help assess an individual’s vulnerability to Covid-19, as part of an occupational health assessment of fitness for work.  

You can also watch our webinar on how to support the wellbeing of workers returning to work after furlough.

Unemployment is one of the most important factors affecting individual wellbeing, with negative impacts going beyond the effects on income. Read the key findings from our research on unemployment, re-employment and wellbeing and the impact of low wellbeing on finding and keeping work.

View our diagram on the drivers of wellbeing at work

Measures that matter

Our Workplace Wellbeing Question Bank includes a list of questions that can be used by employers to measure and monitor the wellbeing of employees. By asking people directly about how they feel about various aspects of the job, employers can better target wellbeing activities and programmes in the workplace to improve wellbeing.

What Works Wellbeing can support you in the development of a bespoke questionnaire for your workplace, and with analysis of the results. Get in touch. 

Copyright © 2020 What Works Centre for Wellbeing, All rights reserved.

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