The impact of COVID-19 on employee wellbeing in Scotland

By Marek Zemanik, Senior Public Policy Adviser.

As 2020 draws to a close, most of us will be looking back in disbelief and looking forward in hope. While the news of a vaccine rollout offers a genuine way out of the tunnel after months of restrictions, we will be seeing the impact of the pandemic for years to come – on the economy, on our communities, on us all individually.

At the CIPD, we were keen to understand how employee wellbeing – and job quality in general - was impacted by the pandemic. We ran regular monthly UK-wide surveys to track a range of indicators which allowed us to fine-tune our own response to the pandemic, be it on the kind of support we provide to our members or the public policy calls we make. Using the answers from all of these gives us a snapshot of the impact in Scotland for the first time.[i]

Wellbeing

One of the most important factors we wanted to examine was the impact of the pandemic on employees’ wellbeing. We asked them to tell us how their mental health, physical health and financial security changed since the onset of the pandemic. The findings confirm what most of us have experienced either personally or anecdotally – wellbeing has suffered a significant hit this year:

 

While we see that a narrow majority of employees reported no change in all three aspects of wellbeing, nearly 40% said their financial security got slightly or much worse, a third said the same about their physical health and, concerningly, 42% said their mental health had deteriorated. Furthermore, since these are aggregated findings from April onwards, it is likely that that they underestimate the full impact some 9 months on from the outbreak. This only underlines the importance of public policy and practitioner interventions around wellbeing, with mental health in particular standing out.

Of course, the impact of the pandemic differs between types of employees and not just between industries or sectors. For example, breaking down the sample further, we find a significant relationship between gender and mental health, with women much more likely to report their mental health had deteriorated than men (49.2% vs. 36.4%). On top of this, women also reported worse financial security as a result of the pandemic.

The other significant differences we found were among people with disabilities. Not only did they report worse financial security, they told us their physical health deteriorated more. Concerningly, 47.1% said their physical health is slightly or much worse since the onset of the pandemic, compared to 31% of people without disabilities.

Employer response and returning to the workplace

The other side of the coin is the response of employers, whose steps throughout the pandemic undoubtedly impacted employee wellbeing too. Of course, different industries will have faced different challenges, but open, honest communication between employers (or managers) and employees should always be key. This will be even more important as levels of government support start to wind down over the course of the next year.

In our surveys, we asked a range of questions around this relationship to see whether employees felt supported in their place of work. The answers show that, by and large, employees are satisfied with how employers responded to the situation. More specifically, we found that:

• 69.2% of Scottish employees said they were satisfied with their employers’ response to the pandemic.
• 63.6% agreed that their employer has been supportive of them during the pandemic.
• 65.5% said they were satisfied with the health and safety measures their employer has put in place.

The news of a vaccine allows us to tentatively start thinking about a return to normality. For some employees this will mean facing a return to their normal workplace, most likely with the virus still around. While the surveys ran before the news of a vaccine, they do offer a snapshot of some of the worries Scottish employees have when thinking about going back to their pre-pandemic working lives.

We see that a significant 42.9% of Scottish employees say they feel anxious about returning to their workplace because of COVID-19 and, at the same time, 29% are feeling anxious about commuting to work (which will include those whose commute by public transport). It is clear that a large proportion of employees has considerable health concerns around returning to work and this is something that employers will need to take into account.

The answers to the last question, however, put some of the “death of the office” hot takes we have seen recently in some perspective. Over half – 52% - of all Scottish employees say they look forward to returning to their normal workplace, with just under a quarter (24.7%) saying the opposite. Again, it will be crucial for employers to openly communicate with their employees, keeping in mind the different circumstances they will be facing.

Conclusion

Most of us will have had personal or anecdotal evidence of the impact of the pandemic on wellbeing. The figures in this blog show the extent to which Scottish employees’ mental health, physical health and financial security have deteriorated over the course of the pandemic. We also see that while most are satisfied with their employers’ response to the crisis, there is considerable anxiety over a return to the workplace

As the focus slowly shifts to our economic recovery, it is important to keep job quality and individual wellbeing in mind. After all, the economy is not the only thing that will need to recover.

[i] By merging the data from each wave (April-Sept), we are able to glue together a meaningful sample (713) that allows us to draw some conclusions on the impact of the pandemic in Scotland too. This does, however, come with a data health warning – some of the sub-samples are still relatively small, the weighting is UK-wide and there is no longitudinal weighting (to account for changes across 5 months).

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