‘Stay at home’ was the often repeated advice given to populations as the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in 2020. However, from the onset of the pandemic it was clear that many workers could not move to home working in order to minimise risks associated with the virus. Research conducted by researchers involved in the DIAMOND project gained insight into the work related challenges faced by transport workers in Poland, Spain, the UK and Ireland and the support they received from their employers and colleagues at this unusual time. The employment impacts of Covid-19 were particularly felt by women but also by young people and other groups (fairness for women in transport is the focus of the DIAMOND project).
The ability to work from home for employees across the transport sector was influenced by their type of work and work location. As would be expected, in order to keep public transport operating workers in essential ‘front line’ roles that were usually carried out in the field, such as drivers and ticket inspectors, continued to be employed in their usual location. At the same time, other roles, generally office based, shifted rapidly from the workplace to working from home or a mix of both. Overall, the responses from workers interviewed in the project suggest that the different countries were similar in terms of changes made to work locations.
“… the job (transport operator) is specific. And, unfortunately, we cannot do it remotely, you have to leave the house, sit behind the wheel, do your job with caution, hoping that nothing bad will happen to us.” Andrew, Male, Tram Operator, Poland
“…our office staff over [several hundred] people would have worked remotely… we moved to Teams. We moved to Zoom. Skype. And we interviewed virtually. We delivered training virtually.” Lorna, Female, Rail, Office based, Ireland
“I had a mixed arrangement there was an understanding that I felt I’d get more done if I could get into the office an odd day here and there.” Siobhan, Female, Rail, Office based, Ireland
The research revealed that both ‘front line’ transport workers and office-based employees experienced many challenges at the onset of the pandemic and as it progressed.
Can you tell us about the key challenges you faced by working in your usual location?
Customer-facing, ‘front line’ workers faced considerable challenges in carrying out their duties within the safety parameters necessitated by the pandemic, including:
- lack of personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic
- conflicting advice and lack of consistency regarding implementation of safety measures
- customers not adhering to covid safety measures
“Not all passengers adjust. There are people who do not cover their faces.” Oliver, Male, Bus, Front line and office based, Poland
“The organisation was not prepared to provide protection equipment. Priority was given to protecting the most vulnerable groups” Billy, Male, Train, office based, Spain
Summing up the difficult nature of the job generally and the additional challenges brought about by the pandemic this respondent notes:
“The tram and bus drivers were and are in the worst situation. They have to ride the streets and, in their case, remote work is not an option. You have to get out there and do your job.” Mia, Female, Multi-modal, Office based, Poland
“You can’t feel completely safe, this job is always a risk. Well now there is an additional one.” Luke, Male, Multi-modal, Front line, Poland
Front line workers faced considerable challenges concerning safety.
Can you tell us about the key challenges you faced working at home?
Meanwhile, individuals who are not customer-facing, and who worked from home or their usual office location, generally did not report any specific challenges related to personal safety, but did experience other challenges.
Themes emerging from the data indicated that participants working from home faced some key technical challenges such as access to an appropriate workspace, limited access to their work computers, laptops and printers, particularly at the beginning of the lock down.
It is important to note that many of these issues were resolved very quickly, but for some people these situations persisted throughout lock down.
“…probably sitting on a sofa is not the best place to do your work.” Grace, Female, Rail, Front line and office based, UK
“I have to work on my private computer. In my opinion it is a poor solution, among others for security reasons. …I have to access work emails on my private cell.” Mia, Female, Multi-modal, Office based, Poland
Importantly, a lack of childcare generally and school closures during lock down meant that most children were at home with working parents during the day. These same parents then had responsibility not only for continuing their own work but also the additional responsibility of home schooling their children, this was reported across areas/countries and participants. This seemed to particularly affect female employees, although we did not have reliable quantitative evidence on this.
“… I had kids here in the house and there were some stressful days now, because… I have triplet boys, so they were at home and my husband was at home… There will be parts of the day where they will be flash points [arguments] and things will settle.” Agnes, Female, Rail, Office based, Ireland
Moreover, the lack of separation between work life and family life emerged as an issue:
“I am recognizing more and more that the longer I am working from home, I am spending hours working much more than I did when I was going to work. There is no time to decompress after work and getting ready for home. I find I am thinking about work all the time” Grace, Female, Rail, Front line and office based, UK
“…there is no border between work and home, I work at night. I get up at 6 am to work before the baby gets up. This is problematic for parents, especially of small children, or young children, studying remotely.” Mia, Female, Multi-modal, Office based, Poland
Overwhelmingly, however, the main challenge reported by individuals regarding working from home was the lack of ‘in person’ and informal interaction with colleagues. The informal ‘5-minute chats’ or ‘water cooler conversations’ as one respondent described them, were reported as being a loss and their absence was a contributor to a negative impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing.
In order to help alleviate this lack of interaction, a few participants noted that they deliberately shifted to a mixture of working from home while also attending their workplace in person a few times per week. Others suggested that video conference calls replaced in-person interactions and were vital, in fact one responded suggested they ‘saved the day’.
“The most important thing has been the (lack of) interaction with people, that has been the hardest thing. Video calls have saved the day to be honest. I feel like I am just sitting here in this room. I know a couple of my younger team have found it difficult, one lives with his gran [grandmother] and the other with her mum… they were both really struggling to do their work and struggling mentally too.” Caroline, Female, Bus, Office based, UK
The challenges faced by employees working from home appeared similar across area/country.
How did your organisation support you?
Participants reported that generally employers supported them well during the outbreak of c
Covid-19 when working from home or in their usual workplace and upon returning to work.
For those who moved to working from home, the majority of participants were satisfied with the measures their organisation undertook to support this, such as providing risk assessments and office equipment to IT support.
“We’ve been offered desks, chairs, any IT kit that we need, I mean they are very, very generous.” Lisa, Female, Rail, Office based, UK
However, it must be noted that resolving issues around equipment and resources did take some time in some cases. Moreover, support to deal with the lack of in person interaction, including offering regular virtual contact was a commonplace issue. In some cases, employers did provide support regarding well-being and mental health:
“I was fully supported, I had daily calls to check in, a weekly team call, silly quizzes at night-time which were hilarious. We had loads of things to make you feel connected. We had virtual management meetings, you never felt that you were on your own.” Sharon, Female, Multi-modal, Office based, UK
“We tried to run webinars, mental health and Wellness webinars … professionals from the health industry, particularly mental health and they’ll come on and they’ll talk about you know, tips for trying to deal with the likes of working from home, helpful tips for trying to manage your lifestyle during lockdown, what to eat, get out for walks, exercise, exercising at home and all that type stuff. Shaun, Male, Rail, Office based, Ireland
The support provided by employers for ‘front line’ participants, who continued to work in their usual location, included the introduction of covid safety measures such as Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), although this was sometimes delayed. They also introduced other safety measures and communication regarding employees’ welfare:
“We had calls from HR… The calls were about welfare checks and there was a number for us to call if we had any other issues. They were very helpful, sent us regular emails of what was going on. I think they did pretty well. As I said there are [hundreds of] staff and we all got regular calls. Every couple of weeks they called.” Theresa, Female, Bus, Front line, UK
Employers seem to have largely responded to the challenges faced by employees, both those working in ‘front line’ positions and those working from home.
What could your organisation have done to support you more/better?
Some employees thought their organisation could have provided better support, although they recognised the difficulties of providing this as they were working through a crisis. For example, they suggested it was understandable that there were few opportunities for socialising virtually:
“I believe that my employer has done a lot. What could be introduced, was introduced – whether it was on a more national level, in the separation of these zones, which is particularly important in buses, where there is no cabin. It gives you a feeling of greater security… It gives a certain sense of security that no one is sitting close to the driver, not talking, breathing or coughing. Each driver receives a disinfectant whenever needed and receives masks to cover his/her face… But what could have been done, I believe has been done.” Luke, Male, Multi-modal, Front line, Poland
“We could have done better in terms of maybe setting aside time to just have a chat with each other, have a laugh, so just to set an hour a week or every second week to just have a cup of tea and a blether [a chat/talk], you know see what’s going on.” Caroline, Female, Bus, Office based, UK.
The majority of respondents reported feeling well supported by their employers in the circumstances, but greater support may be needed for the long-term mental health of staff.
Further details and references:
The full findings of the research concerning the challenges of working through the Covid-19 pandemic and the support offered to employees at this time can be viewed here:
We are grateful to all our colleagues on the European Union H2020 funded DIAMOND project (grant agreement No. 824326) for their contributions to this research, especially those in Spain, TUD Ireland, UK and Poland who collected the data on which this blog is based.
About the authors
Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, UK
The University of Stirling, in Scotland, aims to be at the forefront of research and learning that is based on the principles of responsible and sustainable business, policy and practice. The Management Work and Organisation (MWO) Department within the Faculty of the Stirling Management School contributes to the project with its extensive experience in transport and employment research.
Dr Yvonne Hail Research fellow based in the Management, Work and Organisation department of the School of Management at the University of Stirling. Yvonne has worked on multiple research projects at a national and international level and DIAMOND is her second Horizon2020 project
Professor Ronald McQuaid is in the Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, UK. He has worked in many projects for the EU, governments, regional agencies and organisations in the areas of employment, economic development and transport.
Anne Marie Cullen
Dr Anne Marie Cullen is a researcher currently based in Stirling Management School, University of Stirling. She has worked on a variety of research projects in the areas of employment and employability, care work and aesthetic labour.