Poor mental health is one of the most important predictors of employee sickness absence, with wider implications in terms of health costs, lost productivity and absenteeism.
For many people, being in paid employment, and having autonomy over their work and working conditions, has a positive impact on mental health. However, during the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries rolled out a range of furlough schemes and reduced working time measures, to manage the impact of reductions in economic activity. Consequently, workers were faced with sudden changes to their employment status, and control over the extent to which they were able to work.
How did such schemes affect workers’ mental health and well-being? And were men and women affected differently? In new research co-authored with Senhu Wang, Daiga Kamerade, Brendan Burchell, Jill Rubery, Jonny Gifford and Melanie Green we compared the wellbeing of those who experienced reduced working hours, or who stopped work completely, with those who continued to work full-time.
Unemployment, furlough, short hours working and mental health
Although the most commonly discussed consequences of unemployment are financial, there is also long-standing recognition of the psychological benefits of work – and the detrimental effects of its removal. Marie Jahoda argued that employment is more than a source of income, providing latent socio-psychological benefits such as time structure, collective purpose and social contacts, identity and physical and mental activity. It is the loss of such benefits that damages both well-being and mental health when individuals are out of work.
Recent UK and EU studies show that even a day’s work can have a positive impact on mental health. Indeed, the number of hours worked appears to have little impact; regardless of whether individuals worked eight hours or 48 hours a week, their mental health was markedly better than those with zero hours of work (Buttersworth et al, 2012). In contrast to being unemployed, working reduced hours may therefore still provide some socio-psychological benefits. This raises the possibility that shorter working time initiatives introduced at the onset of the pandemic might be associated with better mental health outcomes, compared to policies in which all work was removed.
Additionally, under furlough schemes introduced during the pandemic, many workers had the experience of being paid whilst having no hours of work. The impact of this on mental health is an under-investigated phenomenon. A small scale study by McKenna and Fryer on temporarily laid-off male factory workers in the 1980s did explore these issues. Whilst there are some important differences between the pandemic furlough schemes and their study, they found that compared to men who were made unemployed temporarily laid-off men had significantly better mental health outcomes. In our research, we drew on this work to ask: do workers furloughed at the onset of the pandemic have better mental health outcomes than those losing or leaving paid work, but poorer mental health than those continuing to work full-time?
Gender differences in the impact of working hours and furlough on mental health
We analysed data from a large sample of working age women and men who participated in the UK Household Longitudinal Study/ (UKHLS) between 2018 and 2020, and the first wave of the Understanding Society COVID-19 study in April 2020. Our findings revealed that overall the pandemic impacted workers’ health negatively; the mental health of workers did decline during the first months of the pandemic. However, the decline was more intense for women regardless of their employment status. This is most likely to be due to high levels of uncertainty in a crisis situation because women may be burdened with parental and household obligations more intensely, potentially creating role conflict or disengagement.
For male workers, the worst possible change in employment status during an economic downturn is to leave or lose paid work totally, implying that those who lost their paid work faced significant negative impact upon their mental health when compared to those still in work. For men, the mental health decline was only significant for those lost/left paid work, but not significant for those in various forms of employment such as furlough, shorter working hours, full-time or part-time employment
By contrast, in our study women who remained in paid work, including being furloughed, experienced a nearly identical decline in mental health to women who left/lost paid work.
The reasons for this are not clear. Statistical analysis shows that the changes in housework hours before and at the onset of the COVID-19 were not significantly different between men and women. Thus, women’s mental health decline at the onset of the pandemic should be attributed to other factors. For example, research suggests that women were more likely than men to lose jobs during the onset of the pandemic (Adams-Prassl et al., 2020b), therefore furlough might have been more likely to induce job insecurity, anxiety and stress in women compared to men. In addition, other stressors such as intensive emotional labour, anxiety about childcare, or work-life conflicts overall (rather than due to the newly imposed pandemic circumstances), could have also contributed to the decline in women’s mental health.
These findings have important implications. Fiscal support packages and labour market measures, such as furlough and reduced working time (reducing employees working hours without subsidizing the lost income) do have important impacts upon mental health, and potentially different implications in terms of gender equality and related policies. There remains an evidence gap on these issues, with attention focusing on other ‘outcomes. Our findings highlight that policy initiatives aimed at preventing job losses during the pandemic are important not only for economic and business reasons, but because of how they impact workers’ mental health.