A recent report shows that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated existing inequalities between highly paid and low paid workers, and between graduates and non-graduates. Between March and July 2020, mortality rates from COVID-19 were twice as high in the most deprived areas as in the least deprived. My research team at The Myers-Briggs Company recently offered two pieces of research that provide new insights into the mechanisms behind these sobering findings.

These studies also show that people who have more autonomy and flexibility in their jobs–something that is much more typical of high-paying positions than it is of blue-collar work–are generally faring better along various measures of well-being. 

Wider expectations more negative than day-to-day work experience

As part of a survey into how people’s personality type influenced their feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic, my research team asked participants about their general concerns regarding the crisis, and about specific aspects of their working lives and attitudes to the pandemic. When people were asked to come up with words that described their feelings about the situation, negative words predominated, especially those related to being anxious, worried, concerned, fearful or scared. Words suggesting uncertainty, confusion, chaos and the unknown, and around being frustrated, angry, annoyed, irritated, stressed, overwhelmed, tired or exhausted, sad, depressed, emotional or heartbroken were also fairly common. 

Interestly, however, when asked specific questions about their working lives most participants gave more positive answers. This suggests that for many in the workforce, wider expectations and worries about the COVID pandemic may be more negative than day to day lived experience. People were worried to some extent about the bigger picture and about how COVID was affecting others, and were somewhat more stressed than usual, but were generally positive about their jobs. And for people who have a job, their day to day working experience was not as negative as one might expect compared to their wider concerns and worries. 

The key, however, is that remote workers–who are more frequently upper and middle-class with college degrees–tended to see their situation more positively than non-remote workers who expressed more worries about their friends and family and their co-workers. And those who were unemployed or furloughed saw their situation more negatively still.

Autonomy and flexibility at work promote well-being

In a separate research project, we have been investigating the factors that promote wellbeing in the workplace. These vary to an extent depending on an individual’s personality type, but in general the top five activities for promoting well-being to try outside the workplace were:

  • Spending time with family or friends
  • Listening to or playing music
  • Reading
  • Focusing on positives
  • Exercising, playing sports, or going for walks

Clearly some of these are easier to carry out than others while in lockdown, but most of these activities are still achievable in some form. We also looked at activities that people can do at work to increase their wellbeing, which include:

  • Focusing on work tasks that interest them, and on tasks that make them feel positive
  • Undertaking work where they learn something new 
  • Taking breaks at work when needed
  • Undertaking challenging work that adds to their skills and knowledge

In contrast to non-work activities, for people with jobs that offer little in the way of flexibility and autonomy, many of these work-related activities may be difficult to put into practice. 

We also found that for those who enjoyed their work–once again, more common for college graduate-level jobs–just being at work and doing their job was in and of itself a major contributor to wellbeing. Combining the findings from both studies, the results suggest that for many people with jobs that offer autonomy and flexibility, work can be the best medicine, with most individuals, even Extraverts, finding many aspects of home working enjoyable despite their wider concerns about the pandemic. 

Jobs that promote well-being are less available to unskilled workers and the poor

If individuals have at least some degree of autonomy to craft their jobs so that they can undertake work that fits their interests, and allow them to engage in learning, and if they can take breaks when they need to, then this can greatly help their wellbeing. But here’s the catch–at the moment these possibilities are much more likely to be open to upper and middle-class professional workers than to others.

Our society is already fractured into the haves and the have-nots. If we are to stop that divide from widening, we need to find ways in which workers of all types can find meaning in their roles and craft their jobs to fulfil their needs. It will not be an easy task, but it may be essential for our future.