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How did COVID-19 impact staff in UK higher education?

  • 4 October 2022
  • By Rasha Kassem

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Rasha Kassem, research project team lead for ‘Impact of COVID-19 on Staff in UK Higher Education – A Comparative Analysis across the Four UK Nations’ at the Open University.

The consequences of the pandemic have been immense and felt across society, industries, and organisations; however, little is known about the pandemic’s impact on staff in UK higher education (HE). 

A research project funded internally by The Open University (OU) explored how the pandemic impacted academic and professional staff in higher education throughout the UK. There were nearly 300 respondents to an online survey in 2022. 

Senior Lecturer in Accounting and Financial Management Dr Rasha Kassem led the pan-University research team, supported by her Business School colleague Dr Shraddha Verma and OU colleagues Dr Kerry Jones and Dr Soraya Kouadri and Ruth Whitney from the OU in Scotland.

The participants included academic and professional staff in UK Higher Education across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, most participants were from England. The age of participants ranged between 20 and 70 years old. Most participants were full-timers, but our sample also included part-timers and contractors. More than 50 per cent of participants were parents and most did not have caring responsibilities. Most participants were females, but we had a large number of male participants and a small number of non-binary participants. The majority of participants did not have known disabilities. 

The pandemic’s impact on staff wellbeing and mental health

Most staff said that the pandemic had adversely impacted their wellbeing and mental health, particularly those with known disabilities, caring responsibilities, younger staff (in their 20s), and staff in Scotland. 

Some of the issues reported included emotional stress, encompassing social isolation, loneliness, and feeling trapped; grieving for loved ones lost to COVID-19; depression due to lockdown; anxiety and fear of death or infection; financial stress; insomnia; loss of confidence; the lack of separation between home and work; feeling overworked and physically tired; and struggling to manage caring responsibilities and workload. 

The pandemic’s impact on job performance

Most staff reported their workload increased and was difficult to manage, particularly females, full-time employees, younger staff (in their 20s), parents, and those with caring responsibilities.

Academics reported their inability to engage students through online teaching, difficulties in measuring students’ understanding and performance online, and a sense of detachment between academics and students. There were challenges in adopting teaching materials for online learning, and more students than usual had extensions, which caused extra work for academic staff. 

Some researchers found it difficult to collaborate with colleagues without being physically together; there were delays in research plans due to data access issues or access to labs, and some reported no time for research due to excessive teaching load.

The pandemic’s impact on staff’s professional and career development plans

Younger participants (in their 20s) were more likely to report the pandemic had adversely impacted their professional and career development plans. This was due to dismissals and redundancies; employers ceasing all professional development efforts – the focus being on students rather than staff, all internal staff development (apart from mandatory training) was stopped, and mentorship was not available; conferences and courses were cancelled; and online conferences were not popular, with comments such as ‘not the same over Zoom‘. 

The learning and development experiences that staff would gain simply by being around the team and contributing to conversations / asking for support were no longer available. Some staff could not pass their probation or finish their qualifications due to needing to complete specific training that did not run during the lockdown.

The pandemic’s impact on the personal lives of staff

Females, younger staff (in their 20s), and those with known disabilities and caring responsibilities were more likely to say that the pandemic negatively impacted their personal lives.

However, overall, the pandemic’s impact on staff’s personal lives was mixed. Nobody missed the commute as it created extra free time. But it also created extra work hours for others. There was increased flexibility in some staff schedules, allowing them to get chores done during the day that would otherwise fill the evenings. 

Some staff enjoyed spending more time with their family, but many others found it difficult to have family around all the time. Others reported that relationships suffered from the strain of having too much time together. 

Parents appreciated being more involved in their children’s lives but found the constant distractions difficult, and homeschooling was a considerable obstacle to productivity. For some, working from home felt more like ‘living at work’, and it was difficult to switch off.

Policy implications 

The research findings could draw policymakers’ attention to the impact of the pandemic on staff in higher education, which, in turn, could help in developing relevant interventions to alleviate the pandemic’s impact. 

We recommend that leaders at all levels in higher education consider the following suggestions to support staff in times of health crises:  

  • provide ongoing compassionate support with regular check-in by line managers;
  • revise the workload in light of staff personal circumstances and needs;
  • make fewer demands on staff in terms of workload and hours;
  • raise awareness about the challenges faced during the pandemic, as highlighted in this research;
  • provide financial support;
  • offer tailored support to staff individual needs with more emphasis on females, younger staff, parents, and those with caring responsibilities as our research revealed they were the most adversely impacted groups by the pandemic;
  • provide training to line managers on staff mental health and wellbeing support;
  • provide online teaching training to academic staff; and
  • consider the impact of the pandemic on research and support staff accordingly.

The research team plans another blog on this subject, notably how universities and policymakers should support staff in higher education during health crises.

For more information about the study, contact Dr Rasha Kassem at the Open University.

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