Exposure risks and mounting anxieties: researchers examine Covid-19’s impacts on workers

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A certain level of risk is inherent to all work environments, but COVID-19 has created an entirely new kind of threat. How are these risks distributed across the workforce? Are certain groups unfairly burdened by their risk of infection or the negative impacts of containment measures? Canadian researchers are carefully examining the pandemic's implications for today's workforce.  

At the Institut national de la recherche scientifique, Professor Xavier St-Denis is examining the sociodemographic determinants of occupational risks of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace.  Driven by significant gaps in national-level COVID-19 data, particularly population level data that would allow for comparison of cases by gender, race, income level, and more, St-Denis set out to create a more comprehensive view of the risk of exposure to COVID-19 while at work.   

The location of transmission for any given COVID-19 case is hard to pinpoint, meaning we lack any data on transmissions occurring at-work, versus during employees' personal time. Complicating matters further, the epidemiological data we do have is affected by containment measures enacted to date. Taken together, occupational exposure risk is difficult to measure.  

"It is possible that epidemiological data doesn't tell us the whole picture” when it comes to risks of infection to COVID-19 at work, suggested St-Denis as he spoke to the Federation about his research. He explained that he aims to approximate risk level using other data sets; one such source being databases of occupational classifications, particularly the US O*NET database of occupational characteristics. Two factors, taken together, may indicate the likely risk of exposure to COVID-19 in any given job:  

  • The level of physical proximity to other people required
  • The frequency of exposure to infections or diseases required 

Just as specific sectors such as tourism, food services, air travel, and retail, have been disproportionately affected by economic impacts of the pandemic, many sociodemographic groups face greater risk when they go to work due to differences in the type of occupations these groups tend to have. By layering job characteristics data from O*NET onto Canada's National Occupational Classification System, and creating a risk score for each occupation, St-Denis could then apply StatsCan demographic data for a detailed picture of who was most at-risk of COVID-19 exposure on the job.  

His findings were published in the Canadian Review of Sociology, which details an "unequal distribution of occupational characteristics associated with a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19," meaning certain sociodemographic groups are overrepresented in jobs that place them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.  

Differences in exposure risk by gender are significant, largely due to women's increased representation in occupations like health care, education, social and community work, with high levels of physical proximity. Young workers, between the ages of 15 and 24, appear to make up the age group with the highest level of occupational risk. And while workers over 65 may be a particularly at-risk group when it comes to poorer health outcomes as a result of a COVID-19 infection, workers in this age group do not tend to work in occupations with significantly different  risks of exposure compared to other age groups.  

Low-income workers are particularly likely to face significant occupational exposure risks. Low-income occupations are more likely to be in the top 50% of both risk measures—level of physical proximity and frequency of interaction. This pattern is particularly clear for women, immigrants, and visible minority workers. Indigenous workers also face greater risks of occupational exposure, scoring higher on both risk scales compared to non-Indigenous Canadians. 

St-Denis’ findings demonstrate that socio-economic disparities, as well as the gender and education dynamics influencing career occupational pathways, are significant drivers of disparities in health-related outcomes at work. As we continue to develop new ways to go about our jobs in the midst of a pandemic, policymakers would do well to keep these "health-related dimensions of inequality" in mind.  

Even workers carrying out their tasks remotely, and facing fewer direct health risks at this time, continue to face challenges as a result of isolation, constant connectivity, and family pressures. Professor Julie Dextras-Gauthier, along with her colleagues Professor Caroline Biron and Professor Marie-Hélène Gilbert at the Université Laval, surveyed workers across Quebec to learn more about their mental health challenges.  

The results were dramatic. Prior to the pandemic, 28% of workers reported mental health challenges, according to the Enquête québécoise sur la santé de la population, 2014-2015. When asked about their experiences since lockdown measures came into effect, nearly half of all respondents (48%) reported an increase in mental distress. The gender gap in these results widened six percentage points compared to earlier surveys, with 40.6% of males and 55.5% of females reporting elevated mental distress after the onset of the pandemic.   

Many of these respondents reported significant increases to remote work, with 38% of workers telecommuting exclusively. Both positive and negative effects of this trend were reported. While workers appreciated greater flexibility in their hours, less traveling, and fewer expenses, they also reported difficulty with concentration and self-motivation, fewer social interactions with colleagues, and more concrete challenges like non-ergonomic workspaces and insufficient technology.  

One of the major challenges impacting workers' mental health is that psychological detachment—the ability to disengage from one’s work activities—has become increasingly difficult, and remote work appears to exacerbate it. Nearly 75% of telecommuters reported working more hours than usual during the pandemic, compared to only 25% of on-site workers.  

Dextras-Gauthier explained that managers are facing unique challenges as they try to support their teams while also managing their own increased stress and anxiety. Hospital managers, in particular, described feeling "sandwiched" between the directives of senior leaders and public health authorities, and the realities of what's possible in the midst of resource constraints and staff shortages.   

It is the sheer pervasiveness of negative mental health outcomes for workers during COVID-19 that most surprised Dextras-Gauthier. No matter where they work, or where they are in their organizational hierarchy, the pandemic has exacerbated stress and anxiety for workers across the board. "It was everyone," said Dextras-Gauthier, emphasizing respondents' self-reported increases in mental distress.  

The good news is that there are things organizations can do to reduce some of the added stress workers are facing, particularly those working from home. The researchers recommend that managers:  

  • Reduce technology-related stress by clarifying expectations for availability and workload (ie. creating clear policies about sending messages outside of work hours), and provide flexibility where possible. 

  • Offer resources, such as training on the healthy use of technology. 

  • Understand the role that organizational culture plays in employee wellbeing, and support managers in providing ongoing communication with their staff. 

Many workers, by virtue of their income level, gender, or the colour of their skin, face undue risk of exposure to COVID-19. It is crucial that policymakers prioritize the safety of these workers. They must also realize that the mental health impacts of COVID-19 are spread widely across economic sectors. Further stages of these research projects, and many others within the Federation's network, will continue to clarify the pandemic's impacts on individual workers and the workforce at large as the pandemic progresses. 



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