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Tripled Levels of Poor Mental Health: But There Is Plenty Managers Can Do

Caroline Knight, Sharon K. Parker, and Anita C. Keller

Never before have so many people been forced to work from home so rapidly. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, how, where, and when work is done has changed massively in the space of weeks, often with little planning. It is not hard to imagine some of the challenges workers have faced: new routines need to be established; some people have been home schooling their children during the working day; and partners need to negotiate home working space. Further, some workers are worried they will lose their job and become part of the large and growing numbers of unemployed.1 It is therefore imperative to understand the mental health of people working from home and how to design such work to be healthy.

Even beyond the current situation, it is crucial to understand how to design remote work to protect and enhance worker well-being. Many companies are now jumping on the “flexible work bandwagon” because they have realized such practices can be effective. To ensure such flexible working is sustainable into the future, it is important to ensure they are designed to be psychologically healthy.

Psychological Distress During COVID-19

Preliminary results from a large study we launched in Australia revealed shocking results (Figure 1). During late April and early May 2020, well over one-third (39.3%, N = 301) of all participants working from home most days of the week (N = 798) reported high or very high levels of psychological distress. This is over triple the amount of people that the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports experiencing such distress in Australia in 2018 (13%).2


Figure 1: Percentage of population experiencing high or very high psychological distress in Australia2. Note: Data from 2014-15, and 2018 were obtained from the Australian Bureau of Statistics2; current data (“Now”) was obtained from our study in April/May 2020; in the current study, a small minority of participants (N = 90) were from countries other than Australia.

Of course, many factors are likely to be contributing to this high distress, including general worries about the impact of COVID-19 on health and the economy. But given that work is a big part of our lives and has massively changed in recent weeks, is any of this distress related to the quality of people’s work and their work arrangements while working from home?

Work and Psychological Distress

Some people thrive when working from home, appreciating the zero commute and greater autonomy to pace their own work. But the results we recently collected (April/May 2020) also show that some people are not thriving. We identified six aspects of work that were significantly and strongly correlated with poor psychological distress: technological issues, close monitoring/distrust; underload; job security; poor communication; and work–home interference. These work characteristics together predicted 48% of the variance in psychological distress after important demographics that could impact the results were taken into account (age & gender).

These work characteristics can help us understand why some people are experiencing such distress at this time and how improving work might be a powerful pathway to better mental health now and into the future. These predictors remained important even when experience working from home was taken into account, suggesting that both those new to home working, and those familiar with it, are experiencing these issues.


Predictor #1: Technological Hassles

We’ve all been there – the computer screen freezes, the audio disappears during a virtual meeting, the picture goes fuzzy and is out of sync with the audio – the number of things that can and do go wrong with the technology we use can sometimes seem endless. Problems like these are known to contribute to work stress and feeling frustrated.3 In our sample, 6.4% (N = 50) of those working from home most of the time reported high or very high problems with technology, and this increased to 13.6% for those also experiencing high or very high distress.


Predictor #2: Close Monitoring and Distrust by One’s Manager

11.7% of our participants commonly reported that they did not feel trusted by their manager to work from home. This increased greatly, to 25.9% for those experiencing high or very high distress. 18.5 % of this distressed group also reported feeling closely monitored by their manager. For example, 21.8% of these people agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that their manager was “always looking over my shoulder.” When individuals perceive that they are being closely managed, they experience a lack of autonomy to carry out their job when, where, and how they choose. Yet established research shows that autonomy is important for well-being and work performance.4, 5, 6 In our sample, 2.5% did not agree, or disagreed strongly, that they were able to choose their work schedule, and this increased to 5.3% for those experiencing high or very high distress.


Predictor #3: Underload

Not having enough to do at work, or being “underloaded,” is increasingly being recognized as a reason for stress and low job satisfaction.7 In our sample, 6.2% (N = 48) of the sample reported high or very high underload, which increased to 12% for those experiencing high or very high distress. Some people might be finding that they cannot carry out some tasks or job roles from home, such as checking office stocks and supplies, taking a shift on reception, or conducting health and safety checks. Not having enough to do, yet being expected to work, is a recipe for stress.


Predictor #4: Job insecurity

Job insecurity is currently particularly heightened for some home workers, who also report very high distress. The economy is suffering, and if people still have a job, they are likely to be worried about losing that job and the likelihood of obtaining replacement employment. In our sample, 9% (N = 44) reported high or very high job insecurity, which increased to 21.6% for those experiencing high or very high distress, with 26.4% (N = 49) of these people specifically believing they will “soon lose their job” and 33% (N = 61) feeling “uncertain about the future of their job.”


Predictor #5: Poor Communication Through Technology

Honing the skill of communication through various different technological mediums is a necessary rite of passage for home workers. All too easily, a sender’s seemingly innocuous message may be perceived differently by the recipient.3 This problem was evident in our results, with 9.7% of our participants working from home most of the time reporting a high or very high amount of miscommunication through means such as email, Teams, and Zoom. This included perceiving that they had received rude electronic messages from colleagues and/or clients, or that others misinterpreted their own messages. For those experiencing high or very high distress, 14% agreed that miscommunication was high or very high.


Predictor #6: Work–Home Interference

Enforced working from home during the COVID-19 period meant that families were thrust together 24/7, with none of the usual daily childcare, school, and commuting routines that usually help carve out separate space for work and family. This meant that partners needed to negotiate working space, children needed to be simultaneously cared for and home schooled while working, and the boundaries between work and home merged. Research has established that such work–home interference has negative consequences for well-being and productivity,8 and this appeared to be the case in our sample also. 13.5% of all those working from home most of the time agreed or strongly agreed that family matters interfered with their work, and this increased to 18.6% for those experiencing high or very high distress. Experience working from home was not related to distress, suggesting that individuals both with and without such experience were equally affected by work–home interference. This could be due to alterations to other family members’ routines and schedules meaning that family demands arose that were previously effectively managed (e.g. caring for and homeschooling children) and competed with work demands. 


Figure 2: A comparison of the percentage of participants in the whole sample (N = 798), compared to those experiencing high or very high psychological distress (N = 301), who agree or strongly agree that they are experiencing key work-related predictors of psychological distress


How can managers help promote employee well-being when working from home?


Is there anything that can be done about these work pressures that people are facing? Fortunately, a large body of research suggests that work can be designed to be more satisfying, less stressful and more productive5,6,9. As managers are usually the people designing employees’ jobs, they have a key role to play. Some strategies managers could adopt include:


#1: Encouraging employees to craft their jobs to make them more stimulating. Managers can help combat underload by encouraging employees to proactively craft their jobs8 to increase the fit between their jobs and their interests and skills. Job crafting leads to increased engagement in work, better well-being, and performance10,11,12. For example, encouraging employees to learn new work skills, suggest new projects, or expand the tasks at which they are particularly good.


#2: Encouraging meaningful connections to improve communication and reduce the impact of hassles. Try to understand the issues your employees are experiencing. If technological issues are a concern, try to arrange better IT support. Encourage employees to talk13 to each other about the challenges they are facing in their work, perhaps by setting up a morning tea. Talking about these things openly helps everyone understand that they are not alone and can reveal resolutions and acceptable new ways of working.


#3: Allowing employees flexibility and autonomy. An established body of research has long acknowledged that having control over where, when and how one’s work is done is positive for well-being as well as other outcomes, such as performance and productivity4,5,6,9. The flexibility to choose working hours, for example, could help reduce home–work conflict and enable employees to manage caring and other responsibilities effectively. It also demonstrates that you trust your employees, and that you are willing to support them in managing their home, work, and other demands.


In summary, the key point is that although distress is high, and several work factors related to working from home are likely to be contributing to this, there are things that managers can do to reduce the amount of distress that individuals are experiencing now and into the future, as working from home becomes more and more embedded in working life.

To find out more about this Thrive at Work from Home study and the findings, please click here

For resources, blogs and video posts to help employees and managers thrive at work from home, please click here.

Meet the research team here.


About the authors


Sharon Parker

Chief Investigator, Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design

Sharon is a recipient of the ARC's Kathleen Fitzpatrick Award, and the 2016 Academy of Management OB Division Mentoring Award. Sharon is also a chief investigator in the ARC's Centre of Excellence in Population Aging Research (CEPAR) and leads the Organisations and the Mature Workforce research stream. Sharon's research focuses particularly on job and work design, and she is also interested in proactive behavior, change, well-being, development, and job performance. She has published more than 80 internationally refereed articles, including in top tier journals such as the Journal of Applied Psychology, Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, and the Annual Review of Psychology.


Caroline Knight

Chief Investigator, Research Fellow, Centre for Transformative Work Design, Future of Work Institute, Curtin University

Caroline completed her PhD at the Institute of Work Psychology, The University of Sheffield, UK, in 2016. Her research interests surround work design, well-being, job crafting, and research methods. One of Caroline’s projects involves co-leading a large longitudinal study, Work Across Life and Careers (WALC), to investigate the changing nature of work and its impact on outcomes such as health, well-being, cognition, memory, and identity. She has published in a number of top-tier management journals, including the Journal of Organizational Behaviour, Human Relations, the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, and the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.


Anita Keller

Co-Investigator, Assistant Professor, Organizational Psychology, University of Groningen

Anita received her PhD from the University of Bern, Switzerland, and did her postdoc at Michigan State University, United States. Her research focuses on work design and occupational health psychology, and aims to shed light on how individuals’ work experiences interact with their behaviour and well-being over time. Current projects investigate temporal patterns of self-regulation behavior at work and adaptation processes. Her work has been published in a number of top-tier outlets including the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and Journal of Organizational Behaviour.


From the Learning Resources for Practitioners (LRP) Committee:

Do you have expertise to share to help practitioners and the larger business community adapt during COVID-19 crisis? Feel free to contact Kimberly Adams, LRP Committee Chair, at kadams6006@gmail.com to discuss your idea and submission details. Thanks!

Find related, SIOP-curated resources on the Working Through COVID-19: Guidance for Organizations and Professionals page.

Find resources and advice on topics including work–life balance, worker well-being, managing remote teams, employee motivation and engagement, and organizational agility. New resources are being added on a regular basis.





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