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What do we know about the association between home working, mental health, and productivity?

5 July, 2023

As many of you will remember, in March 2020 the UK public were instructed to work from home. As a result, nearly half of people in employment did work from home during April 2020. This sudden explosion in home working is new. Prior to the-pandemic, only around 5% of workers did work from home.

There have been mixed findings on the impact of doing working from home on the wellbeing of employees. Many found homeworking to be positive, for example due to decreasing commuting time or increased flexibility, whereas others find it a more negative experience, for example due to a sense of constant connectivity to work, where you are always expected to be available.

My PhD research is focused on investigating the impact of homeworking during COVID-19 on mental health, resilience, and productivity. As a starting point I have conducted a systematic literature review to:

  1. Collate findings from literature to investigate whether there is a link between working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic and both mental health and productivity.
  2. Establish risk or resilience factors that make an individual more likely to adapt well to homeworking during a pandemic.

At the start of 2022, I searched both peer reviewed literature and the non-peer reviewed, or ‘grey,’ literature for relevant research. My supervisors and I developed specific inclusion criteria for the review. We only include studies which: collected data after March 2020; included participants who had experience of working from home; and, looked at mental health or productivity as an outcome. In total, I screened 6,906 papers, along with more grey literature records, before narrowing it down to 27 papers which met the inclusion criteria and could be part of the review. Findings were then extracted from each of the retained papers, analysed and synthesised.

Most of the 27 retained papers were published in 2021, used an online survey to collect data, and nearly all used different tools to measure mental health or productivity. In terms of mental health, findings were conflicting but much of the research suggested that working from home was associated with poorer mental health indicated a negative or mixed link to mental health. For productivity, the findings were also mixed. The review also identified factors associated with worsened mental health (e.g., being female, working in a crowded or confined home), and higher levels of productivity (e.g., being a highly educated high wage earner, being unmarried with no children). However, the overall thrust of the results suggests that new starters and those transitioning to homeworking for the first time were particularly likely to report low levels of productivity. Homeworkers who reported better mental health were also found to be more productive.

This review was the first step in my PhD project and sought to establish the impact of homeworking in the general working population. Given the mixed findings, we decided that it may be sensible to focus on specific occupational contexts (in this case, UK Government staff working during the COVID-19 pandemic), and qualitatively explore barriers and facilitators to homeworking to gain in depth rich data.

On a personal level, I found carrying out a full systematic review a bit of a daunting task, as the process is so long, but I found it to be incredibly worthwhile. Being the first step in my PhD project, this review paved the way for my future research stages and helps set the scene for my thesis. The review is now published in BMC Psychology. Submitting papers to peer reviewed journals is nerve wracking (especially the reviewer’s comments), but the revisions they suggest have massively increased the quality of my research and it's been an excellent way of learning how to produce better research in the future.

You can read the review here: The relationship between homeworking during COVID-19 and both, mental health, and productivity: a systematic review

Charlotte E. Hall, PhD Student, Emergency Preparedness and Response HPRU, King’s College London & UK Health Security Agency

Funding acknowledgement

This project is funded by the Emergency, Preparedness and Response HPRU in the resilience theme, a #Collaboration between the UK Health Security Agency and King’s College London.