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The changing workforce under COVID-19

The changing workforce under COVID-19

Professor Sharon Parker. Credit: Centre for Transformative  Work Design.

Professor Sharon Parker is an ARC Kathleen Fitzpatrick Australian Laureate Fellow at Curtin University, who has established the Centre for Transformative Work Design, conducting high quality, independent and innovative research to understand the role of work design in generating healthy and productive work.

However, during 2020 the research program of the Centre suddenly turned its attention to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, and the subsequent shift of much of the workforce to working from home. Some of the Centre’s own research programs had to be suspended, but the opportunities and challenges of studying this unprecedented situation have since occupied Professor Parker’s team in new ways.

‘Although research already existed on working from home, the COVID situation was entirely new,’ says Professor Parker.

‘Previously, working from home was usually a choice, given to those trusted by their manager to work more independently. But during COVID, many people worked at home, irrespective of preference, experience, or even if their job was suited for remote work.

In April 2020, during the early stages of lockdown, the research team began to survey approximately 1000 workers from all around the world, asking them about their experience of working from home.

‘We found that the levels of psychological distress were high,’ says Professor Parker. ‘During normal times, about 13% of workers report high or very high distress, but these levels at least doubled during the early phase of lockdown’.

The research team then continued tracking several hundred of the survey participants, once per week for the first 4 weeks, then once a month, as respondents began to return to their offices.

‘We found that some people’s distress reduced over time as they adapted to the situation. But others got more distressed as COVID progressed. The question we then investigated is why – what are the factors that explained these people’s worsening mental health?’

The research team found that people in jobs that were insufficiently stimulating or, conversely, overly demanding, as well as people who felt micromanaged by their bosses, suffered from declining mental health.

Overall, Professor Parker says that the COVID crisis has made us all aware of just how much we do value having work, and that well-designed jobs, apart from the financial security, are a significant part of our mental health and wellbeing.


‘it’s not just about having work, it’s about having quality work where you’re supported, where you engage in tasks that feel meaningful, where you’re autonomous. That has become really clear to people, whereas perhaps before covid it was a bit more under the surface,’ says Professor Parker.

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