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Corona pandemic may cause mental stress

For many employed persons, the corona pandemic is accompanied by psychological stress, whether through excessive working hours, changes in working conditions or even job insecurity, in each case against the background of protection against infection.

Date 2020-05-14

Woman using cell phone while working on laptop at home Mental stress in times of corona, © istock | Goran13

The corona virus is currently bringing about massive changes to the world of work. While some sectors such as the food service industry have more or less shut down, time pressure and the pressure to perform are increasing for other employed persons in sectors such as nursing, logistics or retail. Additional hygiene measures or the increase in online trade must be managed with the same number of staff, which can lead to a feeling of being overwhelmed. It is precisely in these sectors that the amount of sometimes difficult contact with customers or patients and relatives is growing. If the working hours are extended, less time remains for recuperation, which can lead to exhaustion and fatigue.

The balance may be lost

Although working from home reduces the risk of infection, it also brings with it an increased demand for organisational skills on the part of the employed person. If the employed person also needs to look after children or relatives, this double burden can force work to be shifted to unfavourable times. Recreation falls by the wayside, the boundaries between work and private life are blurred. At the same time, the lack of direct contact with supervisors and colleagues may be taking away a valuable resource of employed persons for coping. The suddenly very common use of video conference systems for briefings, conferences or meetings calls for new professional skills from many employed persons.

Even now, in the times of this corona pandemic, work should be organised to be humane and with as few stressors as possible. This is especially true for the mind. BAuA is conducting research on this issue in projects such as "Limiting and focusing as strategies for dealing with time and performance pressure" or "Intervention for health-promoting dealing with flexible forms of work regarding place and time of employees and teams in organisations".

Time pressure and pressure to perform

Time pressure and the pressure to perform are significant and widespread stress factors in the world of work, which pose a risk of having a negative impact on employed persons' well-being and health when they occur over a long period of time and at a high level. In the current exceptional situation caused by the coronavirus, employed persons, especially in essential occupations, such as nurses in hospitals or retirement homes, doctors, but also those in logistics, retail or in the police and public order office are affected.

Common ways of dealing with increased time pressure and the pressure to perform are to extend working times, for example by working overtime, and to intensify work, by working quickly or through multitasking. Although these practices are helpful in coping with a high workload or achieving set goals, they are still very likely to pose a health hazard for employed persons in the long term. So different ways of dealing with the situation and the conditions associated with it are needed to maintain health and motivation.

Dealing with time pressure and the pressure to perform well

The project F 2406 "Limiting and focusing as strategies for dealing with time and performance pressure" was aimed at investigating practices that constitute so-called "counter-strategies" to the commonly used strategies of intensifying and extending work. From June to December 2017, several case studies were carried out at five companies specialising in knowledge work and service provision, the core of which consisted of 45 interviews with employed persons.

In the interview study, the employed persons firstly reported on practices that limit extending the work (e.g. by redistributing work within the team). Secondly, the respondents described ways of working that enable them to work in a focussed, i.e. concentrated manner in compliance with their working hours (e.g. by avoiding disturbances). The successful implementation of these practices requires various organisational, activity and team-related as well as personal prerequisites, such as good cooperation within the company with mutual support and care, reasonable performance expectations, sufficient freedom in the completion of tasks or possibilities for mutual exchange and reduction in workload.

Successful limitation and focus is generally viewed positively by the employed persons. However, they also described negative side effects, such as working overtime for colleagues. However, these often reflect operational problems and structural shortcomings, such as insufficient staffing levels or unrealistic targets. Limitation and focus must therefore always be evaluated in the company-specific context and the given social relationships at the workplace.

Working flexibly in terms of place and time

Many people in Germany are currently working from home. This is an unfamiliar and new situation for many. The possibilities of flexible working time models and mobile work independent of the place of work are also referred to as working flexibly in terms of place and time. This basically means that employed persons have an influence on where and when they work.

Previous research shows that flexible work in terms of place and time can offer advantages for workers, for example a better work-life balance, the ability to organise working hours to suit one's own requirements, eliminating commuting time or more focused work without interruptions. It can also be advantageous for employers to allow their employees to work flexibly in terms of place and time, as this can increase employee satisfaction and productivity.

However, working flexibly in terms of place and time may also entail risks for workers. Studies show, for example, that people who work from home work more than people who do not work from home. According to a representative survey by the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, people working from home work longer on average, work overtime more frequently and violate the statutory minimum rest period of eleven hours between the end of work and starting the next working day more often than people who do not work from home. This can make a sufficient recuperation more difficult.

In the current situation, working from home is also a new situation for many workers, and sometimes compounded by multiple forms of stress, such as the need to look after their children during the day. Many working people therefore also have to develop their own strategies for coping with the new situation. These include, for example, how to draw the line between different areas of life, how to mentally detach from work, how to work effectively from home and how to ensure that they take sufficient breaks and rest periods.

Health-promoting measures to deal with working flexibly in terms of place and time

In the currently running project F 2454 "Intervention for health-promoting dealing with flexible forms of work regarding place and time of employees and teams in organisations", various types of interventions are being developed and evaluated in which workers learn appropriate strategies for the health-promoting organisation of flexible work in terms of place and time. Drawing from the current scientific knowledge, a variety of training courses are being developed especially for people who work without being bound to a permanent workplace and fixed working times, whether on a temporary or permanent basis. From autumn 2020 onwards, several studies will assess whether the developed training measures help workers who can (partially) decide for themselves where and when they work flexibly to better cope with the challenges of flexible working in terms of time and place. The results of the project are intended to help provide working people who work flexibly in terms of time and place with specific steps on how to organise their everyday working life so they can work healthily, find satisfaction in their work and be as effective as they can be.

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