Written by Dr Ioulia Bessa, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation & Change.
Paid work is not only a source for income, it is also essential for good mental health. Apart from its financial benefits employment contributes positively on wellbeing and consistent with previous research even one day of paid work a week can make the difference and can boost mental health and life satisfaction. How has Covid-19 crisis impacted employment and consequently mental health in the UK? Our recent research project shows that during the pandemic workers who are furloughed or worked reduced hours have better mental health than people who lost their jobs.
The Covid-19 pandemic risked plunging millions of workers into unemployment. To mitigate the damage of both unemployment and low mental health, the government introduced Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme allowing for the furloughing of workers.
Despite the implementation of the CJRS, claimant count reached approximately 3 million while other individuals commenced working shorter hours. In a working paper with Dr Brendan Burchell and Dr Senhu Wang from Cambridge University, Dr Daiga Kamerāde from University of Salford and Professor Jill Rubery from University of Manchester, we illustrate that employers should cut hours not employees and utilise shorter working weeks to limit both unemployment and a rise in mental illness. Our analysis draws on the first and second waves (April and May 2020) of the Covid-19 Understanding Society dataset.
Covid-19 Understanding Society
Our research is based on very timely data. In April 2020 Understanding Society collected data on issues around health, caring responsibilities, employment and job seeking, training, financial situations, the division of domestic labor, life satisfaction, mental health and wellbeing, home schooling and travel to work – areas then extended in the following waves (May and June). In total 17,452 individuals participated in the first wave (April 2020) of the dataset and 14,811 in the second (May 2020). The dataset offers an early opportunity to examine how far changes in employment status, work hours and involvement furlough job retention scheme are related to the likelihood of having mental health problems.
Who are those individuals whose mental health has been affected the most by the Covid-19 crisis?
Drawing on the April and May 2020 Understanding Society waves, findings reveal that those who were already unemployed, or have become unemployed during the Covid-19 crisis have been affected most. Results show that leaving paid work is significantly related to poorer mental health. In contrast, having some paid work and/or some continued connection to a job, notably those who remained full- or part-time employed or were furloughed were found to have better mental health.
Results are slightly more pronounced when drawing on the May 2020 wave, as we find that about 27 per cent of those who stayed in full-time employment were in the “at risk” category for mental health. This is a stark finding. Although there are no significant differences between those in full and part time jobs, those who have reduced from full-time to part-time hours, or those who have been furloughed, the rate increased by 54 per cent the probability of those being at the risk category for those who lost their jobs. There was very little difference for those who reduced hours from full-time to part-time, or stayed part-time, or who were furloughed. Individuals who have continued to work at least part time during the coronavirus lockdown have far fewer mental health problems than those who have lost their jobs, according to the most comprehensive study of workers across Britain during the pandemic.
Gender differences also prevailed. Although men’s mental health and wellbeing scores worsened between Wave 9 (2017-2019) and Covid-19 waves, for women the deterioration in mental health was twice that of men, shedding light on the pressures women have been experiencing to accommodate work, life and potentially caring responsibilities during the pandemic, or due to higher unemployment levels that have hit women more severely
Conclusions: Groups “at risk”, a gendered crisis and mental health levels
The evidence is entirely consistent with our expectations based on earlier research: reducing hours does not have an appreciable effect on wellbeing, but redundancies has a very large effect — almost exactly doubling the probability of being in the highest risk group. It is also important to note that an overall deterioration in mental health compared to pre-pandemic levels had been much greater for women than for men.
The survey mirrors past reports on the stress caused by unemployment. It also highlights options for international policymakers seeking to mitigate the economic impact of Covid-19, including rising treatment costs for the NHS and still more fragile mental health services in lower-income countries.
Both short working hours and furlough job retention schemes can thus be seen to be effective protective factors against worsening mental health. However, the key issue is how to move beyond the furlough scheme. A v-shaped bounce back is not on the horizon and many sectors will, at best, move into partial activity. So, the need to avoid a huge increase in unemployment is just as vital with all the risk to mental health that that would entail. These findings point to the need to move towards sharing work more equitably, including introducing a shorter working week for all (except in those sectors under extreme pressure) in order to minimize the risk to mental health and well-being if those on furlough are now pushed into unemployment.