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HSPH Researchers Explore Pandemic’s Impact on Employee Well-Being

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Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have found connections between disrupted workplace relationships and emerging mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent study.

The study — which was conducted by HSPH’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise program — may help guide employers and policy makers in boosting employee well-being while working remotely.

Dorota M. Węziak-Białowolska, a SHINE research scientist, wrote in an email that researchers reached out to a cohort of 4,556 residents of North Carolina, out of which 1,271 individuals agreed to participate in a survey to provide data on their work conditions. Among the participants, 65 percent were employed at the time in industries like agriculture, manufacturing, finance, and healthcare.

The group's data charts the wellbeing of employees across 17 industries during the pandemic. The survey, which was administered in May, included questions covering topics beyond “what we typically think about health or wellness,” according to SHINE director Eileen McNeely.

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“We think of work as a platform for well-being, a source of meaning and purpose and financial security and social connectedness,” McNeely said. “And so we’re very focused on, you know, how work changes our experience of life and our well-being and our quality of life.”

For example, survey respondents answered questions about how the pandemic impacted their employment status, how much their weekly household incomes changed during the course of the pandemic, and whether or not work demands interfered with their personal and family demands.

The results showed that increased social isolation and disconnect from co-workers correlated with increased self-reported mental health issues. Sixty percent of respondents said their social relations worsened, 56 percent reported a decline in a sense of control, and 56 percent reported increased anxiety.

McNeely pointed out, however, that there were some positive findings from the survey, with at least 25 percent of participants reporting that they feel “they have been learning new things in this age of COVID.”

“So when things change up, the game changes up, and we have to bring new skills to bear,” McNeely said. “That could be something as simple as Zoom meetings, as everyone’s gotten very smart about how to conduct them.”

McNeely also said many survey respondents benefited from more positive relationships with their employers and management during the pandemic.

“There’s a large percentage of folks who say that their management has shown more empathy and care than before COVID,” McNeely said. “That sense of support from management is important because we know from our other studies that management’s caring and empathy, and trust in management, is a great driver of well-being.”

The group will follow up the ongoing study with another survey administered to participants in the fall, according to McNeely. The researchers hope to track how employees’ experiences have continued to shift in the ensuing months of the pandemic.

McNeely said she was initially startled by the magnitude of reported increases in emerging mental health issues. She added that she hopes the study will help shape future conversations about the pandemic around “how to build a social community that has been disrupted.”

“Mental health, in general, is one of those issues that we have to really shine a light on,” McNeely said. “Well-being isn’t like a ‘nice-to-have,’ it’s a must have, and it’s really integral to a functioning society.”

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

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