People at the start of their careers were most likely to feel stressed and anxious about work during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, a study has concluded.
The research undertaken by academics at Kingston University’s Business School and Maynooth University in Ireland has suggested people in the early stages of their careers were more likely to be affected by workplace stress during the Covid-19 pandemic than their more senior colleagues.
The mental health impact of the pandemic has been widely reported, in particular the knock-on effects it had – and continues to have – on the emotional and mental wellbeing of younger people.
The study aimed to understand how individuals at different stages of their lives and careers were affected and what resources had a positive impact on their wellbeing, said Dr Christina Butler, associate professor at Kingston Business School.
The research focused on people at five career stages, from those early on in the workplace through to those pre-retirement. It found differences in how the different groups reacted to the continued pandemic-related disruptions of 2020 and adjusted over time.
The researchers first surveyed people in 30 different countries in April 2020, shortly after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic, then at fortnightly intervals for eight weeks.
Covid-19 and stress
The resulting paper, ‘Covid-19 pandemic disruptions to working lives: a multi-level examination of impacts across career stages’, has been published in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour.
“Work and personal lives underwent enormous disruption during the pandemic, with people working from home experiencing increased loneliness and a range of mental health issues,” said Dr Butler.
“Under normal circumstances, the younger generations of workers need additional support from their managers and that was exacerbated during the pandemic, when we saw that relative newcomers to the workforce did not cope as well under the pressures of remote working.”
The research also revealed that early-career workers were more likely to disengage during the pandemic.
This could manifest itself as employees showing a lack of interest and becoming cynical about work as a way of coping and distancing, Dr Butler explained.
By comparison, mid-career workers – or those more settled in a career and building on those foundations – were more prone to exhaustion during the pandemic.
In some cases, this was because of juggling other responsibilities, such as home schooling, because of school closures.
“Employers faced even more of a challenge than usual in how to engage young people and keep them supported at work so they didn’t burn out. Disengagement is a clear marker of burnout and exhaustion is the other,” said Dr Butler.
This could also have contributed to the national trend of highly skilled employees over-50s leaving their professions before retirement, she added.
“This group is in danger of leaving work prematurely in what is sometimes referred to as the great resignation or engaging in what is known as quiet quitting,” explained Dr Butler.
“They have been reassessing their lives, particularly during the pandemic and, while they may not leave work completely, they may change career, move out of the city or work fewer hours, resulting in organisations losing a wealth of experience.”
As well as examining staff wellbeing, the study investigated what sort of factors could mitigate stress or exhaustion, such as giving employees higher levels of autonomy at work.
The researchers found there appeared to be a shift in attitudes towards organisational support, which had traditionally been viewed as positive.
“During the pandemic there was often a lot of organisational support that people could find interfering and tiring, such as having a large number of online meetings, which sometimes took people away from their work and led to lots of screen time,” Dr Butler said. “When organisational support is positive it’s seen as a resource that’s helpful to manage work, but it might have felt like more of a demand placed on people during the pandemic.
“Organisations must pay attention to the types of support needed by employees to help them through a crisis.”
“Extra support is clearly needed to help the younger generation of employees, who don’t cope as well under the new pressures, balance job demands while working remotely. More emphasis on this will help achieve a productive workforce through people having greater connectivity and a sense of wellbeing at work.”