Taking Care During a Time of Uncertainty: Insights from the University of Iowa Employee Well-Being Survey

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To understand the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on UI employees and offer possible solutions to support employee well-being, researchers from the Healthier Workforce Center of the Midwest and Tippie College of Business launched the University of Iowa Employee Well-Being Survey. The survey was sent out to all faculty and staff in May 2020 with additional data collections conducted in August/September and December 2020. An additional survey will be conducted in February 2021.

liveWELL interviewed lead researchers conducting the survey to learn more about their initial findings and implications to further support employee well-being. Read full reports on the University of Iowa Well-being Survey at hwc.public-health.uiowa.edu/ui-employee-well-being-survey.   

liveWELL: All employees across the university have been impacted in some way by the pandemic. How have employees working in health care or essential positions been impacted specifically? 

Diane Rohlman, PhD, Professor, Department of Occupational and Environmental Health:  

As expected, onsite clinical staff at UIHC reported significantly lower well-being and were more likely to report that work was interfering with their family life than their onsite nonclinical and remote counterparts. These outcomes got worse over time, and these findings most likely reflect continued stress and increased workload experienced by clinical workers.   

However, there were two positives that were seen in the survey. Supervisors that supported both family and work life and flexible work arrangements had a positive influence on well-being. This was true for both clinical and non-clinical onsite workers. Supervisors who listen to employees’ work and non-work conflicts and work with them to come up with creative solutions help employees manage burnout and improve well-being. As the pandemic wanes, supervisors may have more flexibility in providing more alternative work arrangements, which may help mitigate work related impacts on well-being.  

liveWELL: What are you seeing with employees caring for young children or older adults? 

Beth Livingston, PhD, Associate Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship, Tippie College of Business:

During the first survey conducted in late spring, we found that employees with children at home reported higher emotional exhaustion, but not lower well-being. However, this group reported worse outcomes in the second wave, which coincided with the start of the 2020 school year. Respondents with children at home reported greater emotional exhaustion and experienced worse emotional states. We examined whether this was due to overseeing virtual learning for their children and found that those who are not responsible for overseeing virtual learning reported higher well-being and significantly less emotional exhaustion.  

Additionally, like employees with children, employees responsible for care of older adults reported significantly more emotional exhaustion than those not caring for elderly family members.  

liveWELL: What considerations should employees working remotely take for their well-being? 

Nathan Fetke, PhD, Associate Professor, Department of Occupational and Environmental Health: 

While analyses are ongoing, preliminary results suggest strong associations between the computing equipment used while working at home and the reporting of musculoskeletal pain. Employees who used a laptop, particularly without an external mouse, reported a moderate level of back pain compared to employees who used a desktop computer. Features of the home office setup were also associated with less? reporting of musculoskeletal pain: ability to rest the arms, stand while working, and the availability of an adjustable office chair.  

Although not experiencing as much stress as onsite workers employees working remotely (or in hybrid situations) reported worse well-being compared to pre-COVID times,. Less exercise and a poorer diet were associated with greater emotional exhaustion and overall well-being for remote workers.  

Similar to the clinical workers group, employees who reported greater supervisor support for work and non-work conflicts and that their supervisor was a positive role model for balancing work and home life, reported higher well-being and lower emotional exhaustion.   

liveWELL: How can UI employees continue to support this research?

Shelly Campo, PhD, Associate Professor, Community and Behavioral Health and Communication Studies, Associate Dean, Graduate College:

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact work and family life, it is important to understand the impact on employee well-being.  These findings can help inform how the university can restructure work at Iowa to promote employee well-being. We will continue to look at the findings from our first three surveys, but we will also be sending out a link to a final survey in February.  

Takeaways for UI Employees Supporting Themselves and Others 

Supervisor support matters. Employees with supervisors who have skills to support them and their family and non-work roles have greater well-being.  

Flexible work arrangements. Allowing employees to have flexibility in their work where possible helps protect employees from burnout.    

Optimal ergonomics. Having a dedicated space to do your work prevents musculoskeletal pain and improves physical well-being. 

Physical activity and nutrition. Developing healthy habits and making time to move and eat healthy can help mitigate the effects of the pandemic and lead to greater overall well-being. 

Connecting with resources. Your response to the pandemic is appropriate for the situation, but do not be afraid to reach out for help if you are feeling overwhelmed, isolated, or alone. 

This article originally appeared in the liveWELL 2021 Winter Employee Well-Being Newsletter.