Study finds little evidence of negative impact on mental health from increased home working during pandemic
Since the onset of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), home working has significantly increased worldwide. A recent PLoS Medicine study investigated whether home working affected an individual’s social and mental well-being. This assessment is extremely important to understand how individuals will be affected if higher levels of home working are practiced in the future.
Study: Home working and social and mental wellbeing at different stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK: Evidence from 7 longitudinal population surveys. Image Credit: Dragana Gordic / Shutterstock
The International Labour Organisation reported that 17% of the global workforce worked from home during the second quarter of 2020. In the United States, a higher number of individuals, i.e., around 37%, were involved with home working in 2020. These numbers were higher than the estimates of 2019, where around 27% to 30% of individuals were working from home in the UK.
Interestingly, even when the working-from-home guidance was lifted, the number of people working from home was 12% higher than in the pre-pandemic period. It is essential to understand whether this rapid change in the work environment affected workers’ mental health and well-being across diverse fields. Furthermore, it is imperative to understand whether social inequalities, sex, age, hours worked, and education affect the association between home working and mental health.
About the Study
The current study analyzed data from seven UK population-based studies, which included three age homogenous and four age-heterogeneous birth cohorts. The age-homogenous studies were Next Steps (NS), the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70), and the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS). The age-heterogeneous birth cohorts that were included in this study were Understanding Society or the UK Household Longitudinal Study (USOC), Generation Scotland (GS), the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), and Born in Bradford (BiB).
All participants were assessed at three key periods, i.e., from April to June 2020 (T1), from July to October 2020 (T2), and from November 2020 to March 2021 (T3). At T1, an initial increase in SARS-CoV-2 infection occurred, and the first national lockdown was implemented. During T2, initial restrictions were eased, while at T3, the infection rate increased, and the second national lockdown was initiated.
Participants between 16 and 66 years of age were recruited in this study. The surveys obtained information on mental health and social well-being before and after the pandemic. In addition, the harmonized analyses within each study and pooling of the estimates helped generate evidence on how home working affected mental well-being during the pandemic.
A total of 10,367 participants at T1, 11,585 at T2, and 12,179 at T3 were included in this study. Based on USCO data, before the pandemic, around 30% of the population worked from home. The numbers increased at T1 ranging between 32.9% and 65.5% across studies.
A limited number of studies have indicated that home working enhanced social contact at T1. Similarly, when the restrictions were eased at T2, no significant association between home working and social/mental well-being was found. Interestingly, those who were partially working from home and above 50 years of age were at an increased risk of psychological distress. A similar observation was made for those who were working full-time outside home settings.
At the implementation of the second lockdown in the UK, both full and partial home working increased the risk of psychological distress and loneliness, particularly for those who were between 30 and 49 years of age and with no educational degree. This could be because people belonging to this age group faced additional pressures due to home-schooling responsibilities and child care.
A varied impact of home working on individuals was found based on population subgroups. Many individuals lost jobs, were furloughed, and experienced changes in their working hours during the pandemic. During the pre-pandemic period, home working was associated with multiple benefits, including work satisfaction, greater employee productivity, reduced sick leave, and better perceived work–life balance.
The current study has many limitations that, include the presence of unobserved confounding factors and lack of pre-pandemic data in most observational studies. Even though pre-pandemic well-being was adjusted for, there is a possibility of changes in well-being after measurement. The definition of home working is complex and could be categorized into multiple divisions, such as remote work, telework, work at home, and home-based work.
No significant adverse effects on social and mental well-being were found with increased home working. However, some studies indicated that home working was weakly associated with an elevated risk of loneliness and psychological distress when the national lockdown was re-introduced. However, when restrictions were eased, no such outcomes were observed. In the future, more research and continual monitoring are needed to better understand whether home working increases inequalities in social and mental well-being.