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Studies gather staff experiences during Covid to help shape future thinking

Two studies, one focusing on academic staff at Loughborough, and the second looking at Professional Services staff across the higher education sector, have helped to enhance the University’s and sector’s understanding of the breadth and depth of the impact of Covid-19 on productivity and working practices.

Same Storm, Different Boats

Undertaken, between June and September 2020, by a team from the University’s Centre for Research in Social Policy (CRSP) to find out more about the experiences of academic staff at Loughborough since lockdown began in March.

Same Storm, Different Boats explored how Research Teaching and Enterprise (RTE) and Specialist and Supporting Academic (SSA) staff were affected by lockdown in the context of their individual circumstances.

The aim of the research was to gather as diverse a range of experiences as possible, including both positive and negative effects, and for these to be used to inform the University’s thinking about how best to move forward.

The study explored the challenges staff faced and the opportunities lockdown presented.

Among the findings outlined in the report, entitled Same Storm, Different Boats:

Finding suitable working spaces at home and juggling work with childcare, home schooling and caring for family, friends and neighbours proved challenging for many of those who took part in the study.

Others found that lockdown freed them from routine meetings and unsolicited interruptions that tended to occur in the office, allowing them to tackle projects and work they had been unable to find time for before lockdown.

Technological challenges were a common feature, with less consistent internet connections at home than at work and the need to share laptop and PCs with other family members.

The changing use of different digital platforms and packages available to staff had presented challenges, with many staff finding the abrupt transition from in-person to online teaching difficult and onerous. However, some welcomed the ability to work from home and attend meetings online and saw this as a more efficient way of communicating. Online meetings could offer greater accessibility and inclusivity, for example for those with hearing impairments, although staff also said they missed the connections from in-person interactions and having to interact with colleagues online was harder for those who were relatively new to the University and had not yet had opportunities to forge their own internal networks or join existing ones.

The shift to home working brought greater flexibility overall and for some better work-life balance, allowing time to exercise, plan and eat healthier meals, and focus more on personal development. Others commented on the lack of division between work and home life, feeling that it was harder to switch off and that time formerly spent in other ways (e.g. commuting time or leisure time) was now being used for work.

For those living with anxiety and depression, the conditions of lockdown exacerbated pre-existing mental health issues and led to some feeling the negative effects of social isolation. For others, anxiety emerged due to the pressures of their current or future workload.

The media coverage of the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on those from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background, alongside the events surrounding the death of George Floyd, also had a detrimental impact on the mental health of those in the study from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities. Individuals from the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities felt particularly vulnerable, with events highlighting how people are treated in broader society, and the additional time to reflect during lockdown heightening this sense of unease. The focus on these issues, however, has resulted in more conversations about race and development of constructive approaches to tackle racism across the University.

 “The aim of the study was to foreground staff mental health and wellbeing – and to position this as a compassionate approach to understanding the Loughborough experience and what the institution can do to support its staff over the coming months and years,” explains Abigail Davis, Research Fellow in CRSP, who co-authored the report with Research Fellow Matt Padley and Research Associate Dr Claire Shepherd.

“The findings from the study are intended to help those in management positions within the University better understand the challenges staff may face, how best to support transitions between home and campus working and how to mediate potentially negative consequences of this period in both the shorter and longer term.”

The study includes a number of recommendations for moving forward including:

  • The need to acknowledge that different groups have been affected in different ways and that some require additional support and understanding. In particular staff with significant caring responsibilities – especially those with younger children or family members with additional needs – and staff from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic backgrounds, as emerging data suggest that Covid-19 has disproportionately impacted those in Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities.
  • That choice and flexibility should be increased to allow people to work in ways that suit them best. This could mean extending flexible working patterns to encompass both working hours and working location.

Read the full study on the website.

Sharing the Caring

Undertaken by the Women’s Higher Education Network (WHEN). The research team surveyed more than 1,000 parents working in Professional Services in HE during the March to June lockdown to better understand the division of home and caring responsibilities, and the impact on their careers, while working from home.

Among the key learnings from the study:

  • Mothers in dual career households continued to be predominantly responsible for childcare, household chores and duties for caring outside the home, which was exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • Fathers increased their childcare and caring outside the home efforts but domestic tasks remained predominantly in the remit of women.
  • Traditional gender roles were still evident in the division of duties. It was predominantly women that reported organising the family’s time and activities, school work and household chores, and that were physically and emotionally more accessible for their children and extended family.

Dr Jenna Townend, Academic and Organisational Development Projects Lead and REF Project Manager at Loughborough, was part of the WHEN team who carried out the study. You can read her blog on the study and its findings on the WONKHE website.

The full Sharing the Caring report is available online.