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Covid-19 in the community

Employment and the Covid-19 pandemic

In this section we describe some of the different changes and challenges people faced in terms of their employment during the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes:

  • Adapting to working from home 
  • Experiences of people who had to continue face-to-face work 
  • Working in health and social care

 
Adapting to working from home 

People we spoke to who normally worked in offices described how they had gradually settled into to working from home. Some people told us that their employers had been keen to protect staff, especially those with underlying health conditions, and had arranged for suitable equipment to be set up at home to help with the transition.

 

Zubair found home-based working a positive experience.

Zubair found home-based working a positive experience.

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It’s fine, you know. No problems for me, you know, because you have all the technology to, like Teams. So we use Teams at work, so you can chat, you can do calls. So no issues, you know, and I think they, home working should have been done years ago. But obviously nobody did that. So I think they’ve learnt, everybody’s learnt, you know, there is a cost saving for everybody, like your employer and for employees, time and cost savings. And I think makes it easier as well. Less traffic out there maybe, you know. Good for environment, right, pollution. So, in many ways I think it’s helped everyone, but maybe in in some ways it hasn’t helped some businesses right? So, it obviously you have to look at it from our point of view, from my point of view it has helped me, to do work because the work hasn’t affected, so we’re doing more work actually than we was in the office.


 
Working from home was easier for people who had adequate space at home, and for those without additional responsibilities brought on due to the pandemic. For example, having children at home due to school closures during lockdowns made home-based working a challenge. Even without having to manage competing priorities, some people missed having the physical distance between ‘work’ and ‘life’, and thoughts about work stayed with them even when they were not working.
 
 

Irene, a child protection nurse, found it difficult to stop thinking about her challenging job.

Irene, a child protection nurse, found it difficult to stop thinking about her challenging job.

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I’m a kind of person that, when I’ve finished work, I walk outside the door, I’m concentrating on “when’s the next bus due” or “I’ve got ‘Keep fit’, the bus has got to come quickly, so that I can get home in time for my class”, right. So that’s me as I’m walking down the stairs. And what happens at home is that, so home is a safe haven so you can close off what happened at work no matter stressful was the day, you don’t bring it home with you. But working from home, it’s like that I didn’t have a safe place to go to because I was in my home. I was actually in my home and all I can equate it to is how I described it to my friends and family, it was like you were bringing bad spirits into your home, you know, because there was nothing positive about doing child protection work in your home.

Experiences of people who had to continue face-to-face work

As mentioned in 'How people caught Covid', many people we spoke with worked in jobs that could not be carried out from home. Several had caught Covid early on in 2020, when little was known about how it was spreading, and the numbers were rising fast.

 

Working as a nurse in intensive care, Laszlo felt part of the ‘first line of defence’.

Working as a nurse in intensive care, Laszlo felt part of the ‘first line of defence’.

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And, because my background is in emergency medicine, and, at that time, I was working as an emergency nurse at [hospital], we knew that whatever escalation this virus, this disease is going to have, we will be the first line of defence. We will be the first people to see these patients flowing into the healthcare system.


 
People in less secure jobs, such as those working on ‘zero hours contracts’ felt compelled to carry on working for financial reasons, even when they could see they might put themselves (and others) at risk. When the government arranged for financial protection, such as the furlough scheme, self-employed scheme, it was a great relief for many who would otherwise have struggled to pay bills. Although there were others, however, who realised that either they were not eligible for support, or it was too little to survive on.
 
 

Milembe’s husband was on a zero-hours contract which meant he had to risk exposure to Covid to ensure he was paid.

Milembe’s husband was on a zero-hours contract which meant he had to risk exposure to Covid to ensure he was paid.

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And you know, financial-wise, I my husband works with this contract, what do they call it, zero, zero hours so if you don’t work, you don’t get paid, period. So, I just also been able to observe right some people would risk their life because they just need to earn money to survive. So, there’s a very bad, vicious circle here going on. While you are going to fetch, you know, to get work for your own survival, you could be also a transmitter to other people maybe of a similar reasons and surely in this household, I was saying to my husband it was like, “Oh another reason, if I don’t go, I won’t get paid.” I was like, “Yeah so be it, you know, we’ll survive on my, you know, my salary so who cares?” So, I had that like, ‘do you know what, doesn’t matter’ but he’s like, “Oh if I don’t go there’s no-one else who could, that could go, you know, I have to go de de de.” So, he was more taking risk I suppose and we saw what happened.

 

Samena’s husband, a taxi driver, struggled to find customers during lockdown.

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Samena’s husband, a taxi driver, struggled to find customers during lockdown.

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I don’t work. I’ve got two young kids so that took a big, it was a big strain on our family and obviously work wise we did not know what was going on you know, taxis were obviously essential so they were allowed to continue to work but it was absolutely dead nobody was taking any taxis anywhere at all during the day or not so me and my husband we’d be working right through the nights and mornings just everything crazy just trying to get a few customers in like to get, you know, get the money, at that point the furlough wasn’t even completely established with what was going on with money and if self-employed people would get anything.


 
Since the start of the pandemic, guidance regarding how to organise and run essential services kept changing every few months. Staff in some frontline jobs not only needed to understand and follow the latest rules themselves, but also tried to communicate them to the people they served. This was not always easy.
 
 

Mandy, a GP practice manager recalls trying to communicate with patients about Covid safety.

Mandy, a GP practice manager recalls trying to communicate with patients about Covid safety.

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Everything was changing for us in work. One minute you’re doing this and not allowed to do this and then you have to do that. A lot of pressure off patients that, ‘cos obviously to them it was all new to them. It was all new to us. We were trying to persuade people not to come in. You know, we had, in our area, we had a like a Covid hub where patients could go and meet, see a doctor and we, you know, be examined to try and stop them coming to our cluster. We had that for a little bit.

 


 
Public health messages about covid safety have also changed multiple times over the course of the pandemic. Clear differences of opinion among influential people and organisations, even in national leadership, led to widespread disagreements and confusion among people about how to act in busy settings.
 
 

Pooja worried about her shopkeeper parents and found it a ‘godsend’ when mask-wearing became compulsory.

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Pooja worried about her shopkeeper parents and found it a ‘godsend’ when mask-wearing became compulsory.

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They were constantly busy. They were constantly stocking up. They were constantly trying to adhere to wear a mask constantly, when they were never used to that in their whole lives, you know. It was so difficult to get used to it and dad, trying to make dad realise about wearing a mask and gloves and everything like that, you know. It was, at first, before it was a government requirement, it was really hard because he was saying, “I’m not going to wear that. That’s silly. That’s really unnecessary.” And then, when it, he eventually did listen and then it became government requirement that you have to wear a mask. It was like a godsend. I was like “thank god, it’s actually official now, dad. You’ll get a fine if you don’t wear it.”


 
Employers too have responded in a variety of ways, trying to balance different priorities. For example, many schools avoided imposing face masks as they believed this interfered with learning. In contrast, as Mandy described above, many healthcare services, like GP practices, reduced contact between staff and patients in order to minimise covid transmission. Some changes were to protect their staff, and although staff were grateful for this, sometimes the restrictions made it difficult to carry out their jobs properly.
 
 

Helen, a community midwife, found it troubling to not be able to conduct her safeguarding role.

Helen, a community midwife, found it troubling to not be able to conduct her safeguarding role.

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So my background is as a community midwife, low risk care, so I started doing 12 hour shifts again on our local freestanding birth centre. So my meetings as a safeguarding midwife were sort of put on hold, but I was maintaining that role as well. But it was, not too bad at the start, I was working, sitting in the birth centre, patients coming in, then we were starting having to put lots of restrictions in place, partners weren’t being seen. And this is probably a lot to do with health, working as a safeguarding midwife I was obviously concerned about women not being seen, domestic violence.


 
In contrast, a few people had faced resistance from their employers when they had wanted to take measures to protect themselves, like wearing a mask at work.
 
 

Alicia, a mental health support worker, was asked to remove her mask at work.

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Alicia, a mental health support worker, was asked to remove her mask at work.

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I was the only one wearing mask and even when I come in, literally I had to take it off [laughs]. They say because we are in mental health, you, as they say, you will freak them all out because you’re all wearing a mask and you will create problems for them because of mental health.


 
A few people described how they had initially been encouraged to take extra precautions due to existing health problems, like staying at home (sometimes referred to as 'shielding'). However, a few months later, the guidance changed and they were asked to return to working on site.
 
 

Dawn, a school teacher, felt for her it was never ‘if you get Covid, but when you get Covid’.

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Dawn, a school teacher, felt for her it was never ‘if you get Covid, but when you get Covid’.

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To be honest, I am quite well controlled at the moment. I’ve lost seven stone within the last probably four years. So I am probably fitter than I’ve been in a very long time. So there are people with diabetes who probably were at higher risk than me but, in my job role, I feel like my risk was higher. So, for example, if I had diabetes and I worked in an office with twelve people, then I understand that. That, you know, you can socially distance a little bit more. You can stop as much contact with as many people but, in my job role, my risk was no less because I was in with, I was in the thick of it I mean with, like I said previously, thirty five children plus all their families plus all their siblings. So my risk was very high and I was, it was never, if you get Covid. It was when you get Covid. It was, I felt there was never going to be an option for me in my job role.


 
Staff shortages, because of illness or people shielding, caused problems for continuing to deliver essential services. Tensions were often running high. Dorte found it “emotionally draining” having to keep asking her staff to return to work even though they felt scared of catching covid. As the vaccination rates increased, supplies of PPE became more reliable, and staff became more competent at infection control, it became easier to avert the kinds of crises seen in the early part of the pandemic.

Working in health and social care 

People we spoke to who worked in care homes, hospices and hospitals described particular difficulties. At times during the pandemic, they were very concerned about catching Covid at work because of limited access to PPE.

 

Dorte said her role as a care home manager is better now than in the first year of the pandemic.

Dorte said her role as a care home manager is better now than in the first year of the pandemic.

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I guess we all feel a lot more positive in the way we can handle the future and the way that it’s been handled to now in that home. So, I’ve been there, as I say, from January until now and we regularly give, go through the PPE, the infection control competencies. We update. We talk about in all of our meetings and, in general, I think people are just so much more positive about how we can work with it and also, we’ve all had our vaccinations. Residents first and then us, the staff as well at the same time.


 
As well as worrying about infection, they were also troubled by the loss of human connection. People told us how difficult it was to provide appropriate care to residents and patients while also trying to socially distance and wear PPE. Health and social care professionals were worried about how normal interactions, such as eye contact or a smile, were lost under masks and visors.
 
 

Beth found it very difficult to maintain reassuring eye contact and a smile when wearing PPE.

Beth found it very difficult to maintain reassuring eye contact and a smile when wearing PPE.

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We wore face masks and visors and I don’t know what they were called but we called them marshmallow suits. And I think that was more to just humour ourselves, because it was difficult for us as well. But we were wearing these big mush suits, white suits and gloves and aprons. Yeah they did, if you bend over they did split in half but you know, visors and masks and everything and it was just, they didn’t know who they were. Especially if you’re working with dementia. Working with dementia they, it’s hard enough as it is sometimes you know. Some days they just don’t know where they are, who they are, what they’re doing. And then to add on top of that the fact that the staff they’re normally seeing and getting used to and know you, are now covered in stuff that they don’t have a clue what’s going on. So it was very scary for them. I mean it wasn’t, it wasn’t nice for us, but I think for them it must have been awful to see us, but to not see us, if that makes sense. To not see us how they normally would see us. Because I mean, you could smile at them but they wouldn’t be able to see that you were smiling at them, because you’d have so much over your face, they couldn’t even tell by your eyes because you had your visor on, so yeah. It was very, very difficult. You just wanted to, and then you just wanted to get in there and give them a hug but you couldn’t, because you were terrified of what you could have given them or what you could have.

 

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