The world of work and Corona – dealing with its effects

The pandemic affects each person differently, depending on where and how they are employed. Professor Nico Dragano from Düsseldorf University Hospital is working with his team to investigate the effects of the Corona pandemic. In an interview with the Federal Association for Occupational Safety and Health (Basi), he explains how the impact of the pandemic can be managed and what this means for the 37th International A+A Congress. Professor Dragano lectures in Medical Sociology and his research interests include psychosocial risk factors in the workplace.

What are the long-term effects of the pandemic on the world of work?

Dragano: It’s difficult to give a blanket answer to this – it depends on the job and the industry in which the person in question is employed. For certain people, not much has changed; for example, workers in certain manufacturing industries. There are many companies operating more or less normally again. Other workers, however, fear losing their jobs. Research in this area is dynamic because things are constantly changing, so we have little data to draw on so far. However, there are trends that can already be identified, and we can expect that some things will become more commonplace after the pandemic. In many professions, this includes working from home or the fact that people will travel less for business in the future.

 What trends can already be seen?

Dragano: We can already see several trends. For example, many people who work in the catering, cultural, event or travel industries are now working reduced hours, are worried about losing their job, or at least a drop in their salary. Others, especially self-employed workers, are worried about lost income. These are all work-related stressors that give rise to fears of an increase in mental illnesses and depressive symptoms. Physical illnesses such as cardiovascular disease could also increase. The second large group of workers affected by the pandemic are those predominantly who are working from home.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working from home?

Dragano: People usually have to deal with major technological changes on an ad hoc basis – scientists speak of technostress. New technologies are introduced under intense pressure and without the right framework conditions. Added to this is the double burden on those who are also taking care of their families at the same time. Initial data from an EU-wide survey show that they often struggle with a guilty conscience. They believe they can’t devote enough time to their jobs, but at the same time also don’t have enough time for their families. In addition, there is the blurring of the boundary between work and private life: work just doesn’t seem to stop. However, telecommuting shouldn’t be viewed in a fundamentally negative light, because it can also have a beneficial effect. For instance, many employees no longer have to commute, or they have more flexibility when doing their work.

But isn’t it true that working at home becomes more intensified – for example, due to many online meetings as well as the lack of time to wind down when commuting?

Dragano: This also applies to people who do a lot of digital work in the office. We already have a few years’ worth of studies on this, which show that some employees quickly find it exhausting and suffer from ‘techno overload’ when communication is only digital. At first glance, this might seem a welcome change. But new norms quickly emerge – for example, you are always available and can be spontaneously asked to join a meeting at any time.

Care workers, doctors and health officials are currently struggling with similar yet very unique problems …

Dragano: Indeed, that leads us to the phenomenon where workers in health professions, in distribution or in administration, such as the health departments or health sciences, often work virtually around the clock. The job is stressful and on top of that is the fear of infection.

That’s something that we’re all concerned about …

Dragano: That’s true, and the results from studies in 2003 during the SARS epidemic show that even experienced hospital staff report anxiety disorders and depressive symptoms. Today, everyone is unsure what to do when they meet other people and whether they can become infected as a result.

What do we need to do to address our concerns?

Dragano: In terms of overcoming these fears in the workplace, company managers are just as crucial as policymakers. Of course, it’s important to save jobs and compensate income losses. This is done in part through the support offered by policymakers. At the same time, companies must establish clear rules and guidelines. The social accident insurance institutions, chambers of commerce and the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) can provide assistance with this. The SARS-CoV-2 Occupational Safety and Health Regulation also provides good guidelines for what to do. Among other things, it describes the latest in technology, occupational medicine and hygiene, as well as other established occupational science findings that employers must take into account during the pandemic. The COVID-19 Public Health Competence Network, of which I am a member, has also produced a guide on this. We recommend an incident-related risk assessment in accordance with the German Occupational Safety and Health Act or an evaluation of work-related mental stress, which can be used to develop suitable measures depending on the situation (for more information, see below).

How can the A+A Congress 2021 help deal with the consequences of the pandemic and equip us for similar challenges in the future?

Dragano: We all hope that the worst will be over by the end of October 2021. In my opinion, this is a good time to reflect on our experiences and take a look at the core problems of occupational safety and health. It’s already clear to me that the pandemic has made the division between those working under good, healthy working conditions and those who aren’t even more apparent. The problems facing people in precarious working conditions, such as delivery workers, warehouse workers or people from migrant backgrounds with tenuous employment, are not being adequately protected. In my opinion, this is where occupational safety and health should focus, because people in permanent employment who are working from home can still consider themselves comparatively privileged despite all the difficulties I mentioned.

What can company managers do right now?

Dragano: Nobody expects them to be psychologists. It’s often enough for them to take employees’ concerns and worries seriously, to be available and to react where they can – and, of course, conduct a risk assessment. However, no one has the perfect system for dealing with mental stress and health hazards during these difficult times. Perhaps simple measures can already be put in place to make a difference, such as a lunch break where all people working from home can meet online to reduce social isolation. Maybe a speaker could be invited to such an online meeting, whose presentation would provide the participants with something to talk about.

Do you have any other ideas how managers can help, such as getting their employees to take breaks? Or how they can recognise mental stress and offer help?

Dragano: Managers are responsible for how digital work is set up – which means they also have an influence on whether and how technostress or psychological strain develop as a result. Clear rules need to be established for how to work from home – particularly when it comes to working hours. There should be rules for when emails are to be answered and when not, and under what circumstances employees should attend conferences. Technical support provided by the company can also help prevent stress caused by the technological challenges facing employees. Generally speaking, looking for solutions to the psychological consequences of the pandemic in the workplace will keep us busy for a long time to come.

More information on the SARS-CoV-2 Safety and Health Regulation is available from the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA):

The COVID-19 Public Health Competence Network is an ad hoc consortium of more than 30 scientific societies active in the field of public health that pool their expertise in research methods, epidemiology, statistics, social sciences, demographics and medicine. The goal is to provide interdisciplinary expertise on COVID-19 for current discussions and decision-making in a quick and flexible manner. See more.