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Safety First? Changes in Working Conditions during the COVID-19 Pandemic

New study with SHARE COVID-19 data explores link between job features and the probability of work interruptions and shifting to teleworking during the first wave of the pandemic

In a nutshell:

  • Women are more likely to experience work interruptions and longer breaks – particularly in jobs classified as “unsafe and unessential”.
  • An education level lower than high school is associated with a higher probability to stop working and to undergo longer work interruptions (8+ weeks).
  • Self-employed have the highest probability of work interruptions, followed by private-sector employees. Employees in the public sector show the lowest probability of work interruptions.
  • Unsafe jobs have a higher probability to experience work interruptions than safe jobs, irrespective of its essential/unessential nature.
  • Around 20% of the respondents have switched to (partial) homeworking during the first wave of COVID-19.
  • “Safe” jobs show the highest shares of people working at least partially at home.

 

(July 2021) The outbreak of the Corona pandemic forced people to reduce social contacts and to convert to remote modus in plenty activities of daily life – in private as well as in working environments. To avoid work interruptions and to protect workers from possible exposition to the virus, employees were encouraged to work from home wherever possible. However, switching to homeworking or work interruptions may not always be possible – and sometimes not necessary.

Thus, which occupation’s characteristics have been pivotal for switching to homeworking or interrupting work during the pandemic? In their current study, researchers Brugiavini et al. tried to answer this question by exploring the effects of occupations’ characteristics on the probability of a) work interruptions during the pandemic (including their length) and b) switching to homeworking during a lockdown. They put special emphasis on vulnerable groups within the labour market: low-qualified workers, women and self-employed.

SHARE COVID-19 data allows to classify jobs regarding safeness and relevance

The authors use data collected from Wave 6 to 8 of the Survey of Health, Ageing and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) as well as the SHARE Corona Survey. This allows a detailed account of changes within an individual´s working conditions during the first wave of the pandemic. Around 7,700 working persons aged 50+ from 24 European countries and Israel were included in the analysis.

SHARE provides an exceptional level of detail when it comes to occupational characteristics. To assess occupations’ characteristics, the authors make use of this by ranking occupations according to two dimensions, which seem to be relevant in light of the pandemic: safeness (in terms of exposure to the virus) and relevance (in terms of providing essential goods and services). This distinction allows them to classify the jobs into six categories (safe/partially safe/unsafe x essential/unessential). To give an example: medical doctors and personal care workers in health services are essential but unsafe occupations, while sport and fitness workers are unessential and unsafe. Further, jobs that can be performed remotely are part of the “safe” group due to no exposure risks, but not all safe jobs can be performed remotely.

Safe and essential jobs had the lowest probability to experience work interruptions

The amount of people who experienced work interruptions varies widely between countries. Interruptions of work can be seen in all six categories – there has been no group where no work interruptions occurred. However, as the job becomes more unsafe, work interruptions seem to increase, irrespective of its essential/unessential nature. The authors confirmed this by identifying “safe” and “essential” as important characteristics for a lower probability of experiencing work interruptions during the pandemic. “Safe and essential” occupations have a 10.2 percentage points (pp) lower probability of work interruptions, followed by the “safe and unessential” ones, which are 6.8 pp less likely to undergo interruptions, both compared to “unsafe and unessential” jobs. In the first wave of the pandemic, the “safety” dimension seems to have prevailed over being an “essential” occupation.

Unsafe and unessential jobs bear a high probability to experience work interruptions longer than 1 week

Job features also determine the length of work breaks due to unemployment, laid off or closed business. In consistence with the probability of work interruptions, “unsafe and unessential” jobs are the ones with the highest probability to experience longer work interruptions (over 1 week). All other job categories are more likely to go through brief (less than 1 week) or no interruptions. Since long-term interruptions may jeopardize the chances to return to the labour market, workers in the “unsafe and unessential” category may end up with the risk for long-term unemployment.

Overall, one out of five respondents have worked from home during the first COVID-19 wave

Overall, around 20% of the respondents have switched to (partial) homeworking during the first wave of COVID-19. Workers engaged in “safe and essential” jobs experience a 36 pp higher probability of having worked from home compared to “unsafe and unessential” occupations. “Safe” jobs show the highest shares of people working at least partially at home. This may be explained by the fact that the study is looking at people aged 50 or over – a group, which may value the safeness of a job over other characteristics. When controlling for other factors, the researchers found that especially respondents who indicated to have very good IT skills switched to working at home – an important finding for future job trainings.

Women, less educated workers and self-employed are more likely to experience work interruptions and longer breaks

Regarding gender, the analysis showed that women are more likely to experience work interruptions and longer breaks – particularly in jobs classified as “unsafe and unessential”. Women in these kind of jobs are 9.3 percentage points more likely to experience a job interruption during the pandemic than their male counterparts. Concerning the type of work arrangements, homeworking is also more likely to occur for women – in some categories up to 11.2 pp likelier. These results confirm that women are heavily affected by the crisis when it comes to labour market outcomes.

Looking at education, less educated workers are affected in a similar way: An education level lower than high school is associated with a higher probability to stop working and to undergo longer work interruptions (8+ weeks). In turn, education seems to have a mitigating role for negative effects of the pandemic on an individual’s labour market position.

With respect to different sectors, the study found that compared to private-sector employees, employees in the public sector have an 8.3 percentage points lower probability of work interruption, whereas being self-employed increases this probability by 6.9 pp, making this type of employment the most vulnerable during the first wave of COVID-19. However, public sector and self-employed workers were both more likely to switch to homeworking than employees in the private sector.

Policy interventions could protect and support vulnerable groups

Work interruptions increase as the type of job becomes more unsafe, irrespective of its essential/unessential nature. Unsafe and not essential occupations have the highest probabilities for job interruptions and longer work breaks including the risk for unemployment. Thus, for workers aged 50 and above, the safety dimension of their job played a major role in determining both the probability of working continuously during the pandemic and the length of work breaks.

Labour market arrangements could facilitate these vulnerable jobs, e.g. by devoting more resources to increase their safety level. As women, self-employed and less educated workers are more likely to experience job interruptions, interventions could further particularly aim at these vulnerable groups to avoid severe job-related consequences.


Study by Agar Brugiavini, Raluca E. Buia and Irene Simonetti (2021). Occupation and working outcomes during the Coronavirus Pandemic. SHARE Working Paper Series 60-2021 DOI: 10.17617/2.3291840

URL: http://www.share-project.org/share-publications/share-working-paper-series.html

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