Employment and the Covid-19 pandemic

In this section we describe some of the different changes and challenges people faced in terms of their employment during the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes:

  • Adapting to working from home
  • Experiences of people who had to continue face-face work
  • Working in health and social care

Adapting to working from home

People we spoke to who normally worked in offices described how they had gradually settled into to working from home. Some people told us that their employers had been keen to protect staff, especially those with underlying health conditions, and had arranged for suitable equipment to be set up at home to help with the transition.

Zubair found home-based working a positive experience.

Working from home was easier for people who had adequate space at home, and for those without additional responsibilities brought on due to the pandemic. For example, having children at home due to school closures during lockdowns made home-based working a challenge. Even without having to manage competing priorities, some people missed having the physical distance between ‘work’ and ‘life’, and thoughts about work stayed with them even when they were not working.

Irene, a child protection nurse, found it difficult to stop thinking about her challenging job.

Experiences of people who had to continue face-face work

As mentioned in ‘How people caught Covid‘, many people we spoke with worked in jobs that could not be carried out from home. Several had caught Covid early on in 2020, when little was known about how it was spreading, and the numbers were rising fast.

People in less secure jobs, such as those working on ‘zero hours contracts’ felt compelled to carry on working for financial reasons, even when they could see they might put themselves (and others) at risk. When the government arranged for financial protection, such as the furlough scheme, self-employed scheme, it was a great relief for many who would otherwise have struggled to pay bills. Although there were others, however, who realised that either they were not eligible for support, or it was too little to survive on.

Milembe’s husband was on a zero-hours contract which meant he had to risk exposure to Covid to ensure he was paid.

Since the start of the pandemic, guidance regarding how to organise and run essential services kept changing every few months. Staff in some frontline jobs not only needed to understand and follow the latest rules themselves, but also tried to communicate them to the people they served. This was not always easy.

Mandy, a GP practice manager recalls trying to communicate with patients about Covid safety.

Public health messages about covid safety have also changed multiple times over the course of the pandemic. Clear differences of opinion among influential people and organisations, even in national leadership, led to widespread disagreements and confusion among people about how to act in busy settings.

Pooja worried about her shopkeeper parents and found it a ‘godsend’ when mask-wearing became compulsory.

Employers too have responded in a variety of ways, trying to balance different priorities. For example, many schools avoided imposing face masks as they believed this interfered with learning. In contrast, as Mandy described above, many healthcare services, like GP practices, reduced contact between staff and patients in order to minimise covid transmission. Some changes were to protect their staff, and although staff were grateful for this, sometimes the restrictions made it difficult to carry out their jobs properly.

Helen, a community midwife, found it troubling to not be able to conduct her safeguarding role.

In contrast, a few people had faced resistance from their employers when they had wanted to take measures to protect themselves, like wearing a mask at work.

A few people described how they had initially been encouraged to take extra precautions due to existing health problems, like staying at home (sometimes referred to as ‘shielding’). However, a few months later, the guidance changed and they were asked to return to working on site.

Dawn, a school teacher, felt for her it was never ‘if you get Covid, but when you get Covid’.

Staff shortages, because of illness or people shielding, caused problems for continuing to deliver essential services. Tensions were often running high. Dorte found it “emotionally draining” having to keep asking her staff to return to work even though they felt scared of catching covid. As the vaccination rates increased, supplies of PPE became more reliable, and staff became more competent at infection control, it became easier to avert the kinds of crises seen in the early part of the pandemic.

Working in health and social care

People we spoke to who worked in care homes, hospices and hospitals described particular difficulties. At times during the pandemic, they were very concerned about catching Covid at work because of limited access to PPE.

As well as worrying about infection, they were also troubled by the loss of human connection. People told us how difficult it was to provide appropriate care to residents and patients while also trying to socially distance and wear PPE. Health and social care professionals were worried about how normal interactions, such as eye contact or a smile, were lost under masks and visors.

Beth found it very difficult to maintain reassuring eye contact and a smile when wearing PPE.

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