More Vulnerable but Happier? A study of older residents in the first lockdown

The national lockdowns in 2020 affected people in different ways, depending on age, social habits and living situation. In this blog, Dr David Tross, an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography discusses the findings of a study of how the first lockdown affected their wellbeing.

The hands of a person joined together

Asked to record her feelings about lockdown during the first wave of the COVID -19 pandemic, Alice*, a 71-year-old divorcee living in Cheshire, describes it as ‘the longest and best holiday I have ever had’ while Catherine, a 60-year-old married retiree living in Essex, states: ‘if it wasn’t for this virus, I would consider this my ideal life-style’.

These are a few snippets from 24 written accounts of the first lockdown by older individuals, volunteers responding to a Summer 2020 of the Mass Observation Project, a longstanding social research initiative that generates written commentaries about a range of contemporary social issues from residents across the UK (my older sample are part of a broader age-based panel). While Catherine and Alice were unusual in being quite so enthusiastic about the experience of lockdown, the older age group is of particular interest sociologically because of a paradoxical theme emerging about the impact of the pandemic: despite being more vulnerable to dying or being hospitalised by COVID-19, older people’s wellbeing seemed less affected than that of other age groups. While overall levels of subjective wellbeing in the UK declined (unsurprisingly but still noticeably- given that this was the first national drop in the 10 years of measurement), older people’s self-reported levels of loneliness, anxiety and depression rose at a much lower rate than other age groups. The main losers? Young people, whose self-reported anxiety and depression tripled.

One explanation is about relative change to lifestyle. For my older cohort, it was the lack of fundamental change to their normal routine that characterised the majority of responses. As one put it, ‘’my life just seems to have trundled on regardless’ and her explanation, being retired and ‘not being directly or indirectly affected by the pandemic’ also illustrates a wider point. Provided you or others you knew hadn’t suffered from the virus, three key disruptions in the lives of many UK households: work routine, threats to income and home-schooling children, were not generally a factor for this group. Indeed, when prompted to describe changes in her routine, Catherine writes that ‘for the first time in our lives we now take a multi-vitamin every day’. With all due deference to the restorative powers of Vitamin D, this is not quite the seismic change the pandemic wrought upon many.

Another explanation is about relative expectations. Take loneliness. Despite having larger social networks and more frequent communication with friends and family, younger people self-reported as the loneliest age group in lockdown, surely underlining the discrepancy between the expectations of this age group and the reality (to take one example, students confined to their university halls). However, experiencing less disruption wasn’t always a lockdown advantage. In June 2020, an ONS survey indicated that almost half of UK working-age adults were reporting benefits of lockdown- not commuting, a slower pace of life, spending more time with family- precisely because of the forced but not necessarily unwelcome upheaval in their lives. Although many older respondents did write about enjoying popular activities of lockdown highlighted by the survey- gardening, walking, spending more time in nature, taking up creative hobbies- this was often only a slightly extended version of their pre-pandemic routines.

The boosterish narrative of lockdown was brilliantly satirised by the Financial Times opinion writer Janan Ganesh as ‘Oh! What a lovely curfew’. Decrying the tendency to ‘frame the lockdown as a disguised gift to the species’ as ‘tasteless’, he highlights that what ‘started out as twee high jinks about banana bread’ only reflects the deeper truth that there were winners and losers of lockdown, and socio-economic circumstances were one important dividing line.

Because, as the MO writers were penning their responses, it was already clear that one nation under lockdown had revealed two nations experiencing very different realities. One, living in affluent areas, in decent-size homes with access to gardens, furloughed from jobs or working from home and saving money; another, living in crowded accommodation in less affluent areas, disproportionately non-white, more likely to self-report as depressed and anxious, and, if still employed, having to take their chances with the virus in public-facing roles.

My writers belong mostly to the first tribe. They have gardens, own their homes and generally live in more rural and affluent areas of the UK. This may help to explain their relative lack of proximity to COVID deaths and hospitalisations. If they are lucky, then many acknowledged this. Take three indicative comments: ‘I felt so sorry for families in high-rise flats‘; ‘we have been very busy in our garden, it must be terrible to be in lockdown with nowhere to get out’; lockdown ‘is mostly easy, being retired, well off and a white woman’. These are the voices of privileges being checked.

While statistics tend to flatten the difference within social groups, qualitative research highlights the diversity of experience. Lockdown was a miserable experience for older writers whose culturally and socially gregarious lives were dramatically curtailed (limited space precludes exploring other negative factors, including those with health conditions whose treatment was disrupted). While Alice declared ‘it wouldn’t bother me if I never went to cinemas, restaurants and celebratory events again’, for others for whom these social and cultural engagements really matter, any benefits conferred by lockdown could not compensate for their lack. As one male retiree wrote, ‘I saved money but lost my social contacts’.

One significant loss was volunteering. The older writers broadly align with the demographics of what researchers have termed the ‘civic core’, the segment of the population who do the most volunteering and civic participation (including voting). This core is generally older, female, rural and live in less deprived areas. Over half of the cohort volunteered regularly pre-pandemic (compared to 25% of the UK adult population as a whole), and for some, the combination of service closures and personal vulnerability meant that they could no longer do so. ‘My friend and I who have worked together in Citizens Advice (CAB) and have done for many years, were over 70 and at risk and asked not to come’ writes one 80-year-old; ‘I have volunteered at CAB first as an adviser and latterly doing admin for over 45 years so this was a huge loss’. Another who organised events for other older residents in the village hall has moved some of these online but laments that this is ‘just not the same. I miss my social connections’.

The loss of volunteering opportunities also provides a more nuanced understanding of the unprecedented community response in the first wave of the pandemic. In what has been described as the largest peacetime civilian mobilisation in UK history, an estimated three million people in April and May of 2020 formed the vanguard of neighbourhood covid support groups delivering key medical services, food provision and support to vulnerable people across the UK. The Local Trust calls this as ‘an extraordinary response to the crisis, and evidence of a surge in community spirit’. And yet the spontaneous emergence of informal and locally focused covid mutual support groups ran alongside a sharp drop in formal volunteering, as charities and voluntary associations closed services and furloughed staff, or where older volunteers were too vulnerable to participate. This doesn’t mean that older people weren’t part of the bottom-up community response; some in the cohort took active roles. But it did mean that many older citizens who formed the bedrock of UK Civil Society were now, at the apotheosis of voluntary contribution, left without a contribution to make.

*names have been invented

 

 

 

 

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Back to basics: how employers can help solicitors’ well-being

Law is one of the most popular degree choices, forming part of the ‘big triad’ along with medicine and finance in terms of a career of choice. But does a career in law come at a cost, and if so, what can employers do about it? Lucinda Soon, Solicitor and PhD student at Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology, highlights key findings from her research with co-authors, Dr James Walsh, Professor Almuth McDowall and Dr Kevin Teoh.

Over the past five years, the well-being of solicitors in England and Wales has become a topic of growing concern. In part, this was triggered by the disciplinary case of Sovani James. James, a junior solicitor, was struck off the Roll of Solicitors by the High Court for acting dishonestly at work, despite the Court acknowledging her behaviour may have arisen because of toxic work conditions and the stress she was under as a result. This decision sent an immediate shockwave through the solicitors’ profession, and an increased urgency developed to take the well-being of solicitors more seriously.

The Law Society of England and Wales has launched several surveys on the well-being of its junior members. Its latest survey, published in 2019, revealed that over 90% felt stressed in their role, with almost 25% feeling severely or extremely stressed. Last year, a study by the charity LawCare reported considerable risks of burnout, particularly relating to exhaustion.

These reports point towards a problem, but there is little evidence to inform us of what factors might be contributing to it and, importantly, how firms and organisations can help to address it. In our study, we sought to shed some light on this by looking at some possible aspects of work. Drawing on self-determination theory, we investigated how solicitors’ well-being might be affected by job autonomy, perceived belonging (or relatedness) at work, feelings of competence, and levels of mindfulness. To do this, we analysed responses from an online survey of 340 trainee and qualified solicitors practising in England and Wales.

The ABC’s of solicitors’ well-being

According to self-determination theory, we all have three basic psychological needs which must be satisfied if we are to flourish, thrive, and be well at work. These are the needs for autonomy (feeling we are in control of and have choice in our work), belonging or relatedness (feeling socially connected and supported at work), and competence (feeling we are effective in what we do, that we have mastery and skill, or that we can develop them). As the core psychological requirements for well-being, these factors also form a memorable acronym; to help solicitors’ well-being, do we need to go back to the basics of their ABCs?

We found the more that solicitors felt satisfied in their autonomy, belonging, and competence at work, the higher their well-being. This was observed regardless of gender, level of post-qualification experience (PQE), or type of organisation. In other words, common to all the solicitors we surveyed, feeling supported in their ABCs at work was important to their well-being.

Does mindfulness play a role?

Our study also found that solicitors with higher mindfulness experienced greater well-being. Again, this was the case regardless of gender, level of PQE, or where a solicitor worked, suggesting the benefit of mindfulness may be generally applied.

Interestingly, not only did higher mindfulness alone correspond with greater well-being; solicitors who were more satisfied in their needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence at work had higher levels of mindfulness, which in turn contributed to their well-being. Having the basic ABC building blocks in place appeared to cultivate mindfulness, amplifying the well-being benefits for solicitors.

What does this mean for managers and leaders?

While a clear link was found between mindfulness and solicitors’ well-being, our study points towards the importance of ensuring solicitors are satisfied in their ABCs at work. These basic and fundamental work factors play a direct role in solicitors’ well-being and may also help to facilitate the development of mindfulness to strengthen it even further. This places the work environment and work conditions of solicitors firmly into the spotlight.

Solicitors need to feel they have autonomy, that they belong, and are supported and cared for at work. They equally need to feel they are competent and effective in their jobs. Without these basic elements, their well-being will suffer. Our findings raise the possibility that had Sovani James been supported by her firm in terms of her ABCs at work, her mental health and well-being may not have deteriorated to the extent that it did, ultimately resulting in the end of her legal career.

The impact of Covid-19 and beyond

The changing context of work arising from Covid-19 cannot be ignored. Remote working and a greater appreciation for more flexible ways of working may have given many solicitors more autonomy in terms of when, where, and how they work; however, it has also introduced new challenges into the mix.

Our study shows that feeling connected and cared for, and competent and effective at work, matters for solicitors’ well-being. These work conditions can be easily frustrated when solicitors work in isolation from colleagues, mentors, and leaders, especially over a prolonged period of time. This may be particularly so for trainees and junior solicitors, who are less experienced and may need more frequent support from others.

Social-networking tools and formal and informal virtual catchups can help solicitors feel connected and supported by their work community even when they are working from home. Likewise, regular access to learning and development opportunities, agreed channels for feedback, and effective supervision can all be achieved using technology to facilitate communications. Remembering the need for autonomy, management and leadership practices which respect individual circumstances are also critical. One size will not fit all. Understanding people’s differing needs and wants and giving them a degree of control and choice over their work will all feed into their well-being.

As the profession continues to adjust to a new hybrid way of working, being alive to the importance of solicitors’ ABCs is a crucial starting point for all law firms and organisations looking to safeguard the well-being of their staff.

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My PhD focuses on well-being in the legal profession. While the findings of this study highlight some of the ways in which employers can help to promote solicitors’ well-being, there is more to the story. Please get in touch at l.soon@bbk.ac.uk, on LinkedIn or Twitter, if you’d like to discuss this study or share your thoughts.

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The Experiences of Junior Doctors Working During the COVID-19 Pandemic

In light of the rapid rise in Omicron cases in the UK, Dr Kevin Teoh, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, shares the latest findings from a study exploring junior doctors’ mental health.

Dr Kevin Teoh smiling, standing against a wall.

A big factor behind the increasing COVID-19 restrictions being (re)-implemented following the emergence of the Omicron variant is the pressure that our healthcare system is under. It is easy to see the healthcare system as this big organisation and not fully realise that its most important makeup is its people – who have their own thoughts, feeling and emotions.

In this study, we sought to better understand what that experience was like for individual doctors working during this pandemic. Over the past three years I have been working on a project led by Dr Ruth Riley at the University of Birmingham on working cultures, mental health and suicide among junior doctors in the National Health Service. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we were able to capture the experience and impact of our participants working on the front lines, and in this study we focus on interviews with fifteen junior doctors drawn from a larger online survey of 456 junior doctors.

Challenges of working during the pandemic

Here we saw participants share at a personal level strong feelings of helplessness and powerlessness – especially in relation to the exposure to death and suffering. One participant shared that: “’I’d seen a whole ward just emptied out and then refilled overnight, after people had just died. It was horrendous”. There was also significant concern not only about being infected, but about potentially infecting loved ones outside of the workplace.

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic created substantial upheaval for junior doctors’ workplaces. Patients loads increased substantially while there was a distinct lack of support reported by others. The already under-staffed system was stretched even further as colleagues were infected, had to isolate or simply needed a break having exceeded their working hours.

On top of that, our junior doctors reported a new pressure in having to take on all the new information about this new virus on top of their existing heavy workloads, as this participant shared: “We were getting 20 emails a day, and every single one would have a red flag saying ‘vital, important, must read’, and you’d worry you’d missed something […] there’s so much information, it was constant, and you couldn’t switch off”.

There were changes to work practices, such as increased phone and online consultations, which not only necessitated learning new systems but also was not always conducive to the task at hand or supporting patient needs. It was also an additional source of complaint and abuse from patients who were frustrated with these new forms of consultations. Restrictions on group sizes, socialising and training also accentuated feelings that their training, support and learning needs were not being met.

Strategies of coping with the pandemic

Recognising the challenges from the pandemic, it was therefore concerning that many participants shared the inadequacy of personal coping strategies. Although these may have been useful before the pandemic, it was often felt that it was not enough during the pandemic.

Participants here shared how crying was one way of dealing with emotions. Others tried to be stoic – over time they were worn though and resigned that things were not going to get any better. This led to one participant sharing that “we’ve sort of entered a collective sort of depressive state of acceptance”.

More proactive examples had junior doctors trying to exert more control over their situation, seeking out new roles and tasks, such as getting more involved with supporting relatives which helped them feel as though were actually accomplishing something – “It wasn’t that sort of like, ‘I put lines in people and hopefully’, and then just watching them die”. Others shared about how they had to actively seek out psychological support to help them cope and prevent them from spiralling further.

Positive impact on working practices

Not all was doom, with participants also sharing positive examples of change. Crucially, some changes to work practices – such as longer rotations and working in consistent teams – led to feelings of better stability and more support. There were also examples of how less bureaucracy and more control allowed junior doctors to focus on more efficient and better ways of working with each other and for their patients.

Organisations too had to rapidly learn how to support their workers, with more access to psychological help and resources, or the provision of basic facilities being reinstated – including refreshments and rest areas. These were important given that “there were huge queues at the supermarket, and we were working 12-hour shifts, and it was unpredictable whether you could get food”.

What does this mean?

This study was an eye-opening experience into the challenges faced by junior doctors on working on the front-line at the start of the pandemic. As we enter its second year, serious questions need to be raised about how we support and retain not only junior doctors, but all workers in the healthcare system who likely have similar experiences. At the very least, a greater sense of appreciation and empathy for the work that they are doing is needed.

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How to manage age-diverse friendships in the workplace

Dr Libby Drury, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology, shares the latest findings on the impact of age-diverse friendships on employee satisfaction and advice for managers on nurturing this relationship.

If you’ve ever referred to a colleague as your ‘work mum’, or found yourself at a multi-generational office party, you’ll be familiar with the way in which the workplace facilitates age-diverse friendships. 

With an ageing population and retirement ages inching ever-upwards, age gaps between employees are becoming larger. This poses a new challenge for organisations to manage the relationships between employees of different ages. 

Together with Dr Ulrike Fasbender, University of Hohenheim, Stuttgart, I sought to understand the possible positive and negative impact of age-diverse workplace friendships on job satisfaction and how managers could support employees in navigating this unique relationship. This research was partly supported by The British Academy [No. VF1\100674].

We surveyed 93 pairs of age-diverse co-workers to gain a greater understanding of how their friendship impacted their motivation, job satisfaction and intentions to stay with their organisation. 

What are the benefits of age-diverse friendships in the workplace? 

Our research found that age-diverse friendships had a positive effect on employees’ motivation to cooperate. 

The reason for this is rooted in Self Expansion Theory, which states that close relationships allow people to expand the self by psychologically claiming another person’s resources, perspectives and identities as one’s own. When people form meaningful friendships, the self and the other are perceived as one. 

In the case of age-diverse workplace friendships, employees may view the successes or failures of befriended colleagues as their own, so they are more motivated to work together to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes. 

When age-diverse friendships lead to conflict 

While age-diverse friendships support intergenerational cooperation, they also generate conflict when there are incompatible demands between the formal role of being an employee and the informal role of being a friend. This is particularly relevant for age-diverse friendships at work, where employees of different ages may possess a different status in the organisation. 

This interrole conflict is linked to reduced job satisfaction and increased intentions to look for other roles elsewhere. 

What does this mean for managers? 

Our findings show that there are both positives and negatives associated with age-diverse workplace friendships. On the one hand, such friendships boost motivation and cooperation, but the conflicting role identities of colleague and friend can put added pressure on employees, thus contributing to higher turnover. 

It is therefore important for managers to provide opportunities for age-diverse workplace friendships to develop and to put support in place to prevent interrole conflict. For example, managers could: 

1. Demonstrate support for workplace friendships 

Showing tolerance for visits and informal conversations between employees could support workplace friendships to develop. Organisations could also provide social spaces, such as informal seating in common areas or designated break rooms where employees can interact. They could also arrange gatherings for age-diverse employees to interact informally, such as celebrations of work achievements. 

2. Redesign formal organisational structures to foster collaboration between age-diverse employees 

Consider how jobs could be assigned to age-diverse employees to lead to opportunities for collaboration and friendships to develop. 

A good starting point would be to design projects where age diverse colleagues complete individual tasks in line with an overall common goal, then collectively pool task outcomes and synthesise the knowledge gained. Interacting at a deeper level during interdependent tasks helps age-diverse colleagues develop an appreciation of their deeper level similarities. 

3. Protect against interrole conflict 

It is essential for organisations to mitigate against interrole conflict to avoid the negative associations of age-diverse friendships with job satisfaction and turnover intentions. 

To do this, organisations could provide resources to allow employees to more successfully juggle their interrole conflict. They could also provide clarity and guidance via the organisations’ policies to guide employees in the dos and don’ts of age-diverse friendships at work. 

Further Information 

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