Across the globe, confinement measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 contributed to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors (Ammar et al. 2020a, b; Deschasaux-Tanguy et al. 2020; Reyes-Olavarría et al. 2020) and negative health outcomes, including important increases in the prevalence of psychosocial and emotional disorders (Ammar.et al. 2020b). However, some positive consequences in the context of “One Health”, which includes all aspects of human, environmental, and animal health (Laubichler 2020), have also been documented, e.g., for the environment (Zambrano-Monserrate et al. 2020) and for certain health outcomes in some sections of society. Importantly, specific COVID-19 mitigation strategies differed across countries and differentially affected specific sections of societies. Thus, the overall implications of COVID-19 mitigation measures for public and environmental health remain uncertain.
A 50-day mitigation period in response to the first COVID-19 wave in Austria started on March 16, 2020 (Republik Österreich 2020a) with restrictions lifted on May 1, 2020 (Republik Österreich 2020b). The policy included a ban on entering public places with only five exceptions: errands to cover necessary basic needs, professional activity (i.e., by essential workers such as health care workers), care and assistance for those in need of support, exercise outdoors alone or with people living in the same household, and averting danger to life, limb or property (Republik Österreich 2020a). Schools and kindergardens were closed (Kurier 2020), and day care was provided only for essential workers, e.g., health care workers, who could not allocate other resources for childcare.
In Austria, the prevalence of mental health problems increased during the mitigation period, with younger age, female gender, unemployment and low income as the driving risk factors (Pieh et al. 2020). In addition, a decrease of in-person psychotherapy was not compensated by increases in remote psychotherapy (Probst et al. 2020). In other countries, a few positive outcomes of COVID-19 mitigation measures have been reported, for example, eating more healthily than before (Deschasaux-Tanguy et al. 2020; Reyes-Olavarría et al. 2020). Before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, studies mainly reported negative effects of quarantine measures on mental health, suggesting potentially long-lasting consequences (Brooks et al. 2020). However, COVID-19 measures came with a novelty for a large part of the population: work from home.
Evidence before pandemic times suggests that work from home can improve life and work in several ways. People who chose to work from home reported to enjoy greater flexibility in relation to work, leisure activities, and family (Laegran 2008). More control and choice in work is expected to improve wellbeing (Joyce et al. 2010), and working from home has been linked to higher job satisfaction (Troup and Rose 2012). Finally, Eurofound concluded that telework has mainly positive effects on individual performance (Eurofound 2017), although working from home entails problems too, such as unclear boundaries between work and private life (Palumbo 2020; Palumbo et al. 2020; Vittersø et al. 2003) and lack of interpersonal relationship of colleagues (Webster and Wong 2008).
In early times of the pandemic, the transition to working from home was associated with a decrease in physical and mental health in a North American sample although reported associations might be the consequence of overall mitigation measures (Xiao et al. 2020). In a Japanese sample, working from home was associated with less depressive symptoms among men who worked long hours and among women in general (Sato et al. 2020), while a study among software engineers indicated a neutral effect of working from home on their well-being and productivity (Russo et al. 2020). In Austria, approximately 25% of the working population worked from home during the first mitigation period, and 72% of those stated that they preferred working from home once the pandemic ends (TQS Research & Consulting 2020). Furthermore, a survey among 526 Austrian companies revealed that 54% plan to maintain post-pandemic work-from-home options for some employees (Land Niederösterreich 2020). In sum, it can be expected that working from home comes with positive and negative side effects even during pandemic times, and the new high in people working from home warrants to further explore how working from home might affect work and life.
Therefore, the objective of this study was to explore changes in quality of life and perceived productivity, with a specific focus on the effects of working from home during the first COVID-19 50-day mitigation period in Austria.
Study design and setting
Between June 3 and June 23, 2020, we conducted an online survey assessing changes in lifestyle and work-related characteristics with specific reference to the time period during the COVID-19 mitigation measures in Austria (March 16 to May 1, 2020) among 1010 Austrians randomly selected from an Online-Panel quota sampled to represent the age (18–65 years), sex and county distribution of Austria’s general population. To assess changes in lifestyle, quality of life and perceived productivity, participants rated on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from “decreased importantly” to “increased importantly” whether aforementioned variables had changed during the mitigation period compared to before the pandemic. The survey, which included 81 questions and took approximately 30 minutes to complete, was implemented by Interrogare (www.interrogare.de), a health care research institute based in Germany. Participation was voluntary and anonymous, and informed consent was implied through participation.
In addition to demographic and lifestyle variables, participants indicated on a Likert scale [decreased importantly, decreased, no change, improved, improved importantly] if their quality of life and, among those in the work force, perceived productivity at work, had changed during the COVID-19 mitigation period compared to the time before the mitigation period. Participants reported if they were working from home during the mitigation period [not working from home, working partially from home, working from home all the time]. The covariates, which included age [< 30, 30–39, 40–49, 50–59, ≥ 60 years], gender [female, male], educational attainment [high school or less, university entry exam, university degree], citizenship [Austrian, other], race [Caucasian/White, other], region of residence [West, South, East], residential area [urban, rural with < 50,000 inhabitants, rural with at least 50,000 inhabitants], marital status [single/married/in partnership, divorced/widowed], size of household including oneself [single, 2, 3, 4 + persons], number of children [none, 1/2/3 +], having to take care of children younger than 6 years at home [yes, no, none that age], having to take care of children ages 6–16 at home [yes, no, none that age], current work status [employed (including self-employed) full-time, employed (including self-employed) part-time, retired, unemployed, student or in training], financial strain during mitigation period [none, some, high, very high], dispositional optimism assessed using the validated Life Orientation Test‐Revised (LOT‐R) (Scheier et al. 1994) [low, high], job loss [yes, no] and short-time work [no, yes, not employed before the mitigation period], were self-reported. Short-time work, a policy to help retain jobs, was implemented in Austria at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and entailed having companies reduce employee work hours while continuing to pay almost full salary, with the government subsidizing a major portion of the salaries.
We used multinominal logistic regression models to calculate age- and multivariable-adjusted odds ratios (ORs) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) of improved/decreased quality of life in the entire sample, and of improved/decreased productivity in a subsample comprising only those who had been employed before the mitigation period (working population: N = 686). In the latter subset, we also calculated age- and multivariable-adjusted ORs and 95% CIs of an improved/decreased quality of life and an improved/decreased productivity by work from home status (not, part of the time, all the time). Our multivariable models considered the covariables listed above as confounders. A two-sided significance level (α = 0.05) and STATA (version 14.1, 2015, StataCorp LP) were used for all analyses.
Of 1010 respondents to the survey, three with missing information on gender were excluded, leaving 1007 participants for our analyses. Fifty-five percent of survey participants were women, and approximately 91% were Austrian citizens. Of all participants, 65.3% (men, 68.8%; women, 62.0%) were part- or full-time employed (including those self-employed) and 4.6% had lost their job during the mitigation period (men, 4.8%; women, 4.3%). Men were older and more frequently reported having received only basic education. 31.8% of the whole sample had not been employed (or self-employed) before the mitigation period. During the mitigation period, 17.7% of the sample were not working from home, 29.5% were working from home part of the time and 21.0% all the time (Table 1). In the working sample, those working from home were more frequently men (75.1% vs. 72.9% working from home), younger (< 30 years, 82.6% working from home; 30–49 years, 78.1%; ≥ 50 years, 61.1%), and participants who had received higher education (high school or less, 57.7% working from home; University entering exam, 80.8%; University degree, 85%).
Prevalence of changes in quality of life and perceived productivity
During the COVID-19 mitigation period in Austria, quality of life improved for 17.5% (men, 15.1%; women, 19.9%) and decreased for 20.7% (men, 20.6%; women, 20.7%) of the overall Austrian population sample (Fig. 1). Younger and highly educated participants reported an improved quality of life more often than older or less educated participants. In addition, participants reported improved quality of life more frequently if they worked from home than if they did not work from home—a trend which was seen irrespective of age group and level of educational attainment (Fig. 1).
Productivity at work improved in 12.7% (men, 13.4%; women, 11.9%) and decreased in 30.2% (men, 27.4%; women, 33.0%) of the working population sample. Younger individuals reported decreased work productivity more frequently than older persons, and participants with a higher educational status reported improved productivity more frequently than those with less education (Supplementary Fig. 1). Men, but not women, who worked from home during the mitigation period reported an increased productivity more frequently than those who did not work from home (none, 8.1%; part of the time, 11.6%; all the time, 20.4%). Increased productivity was also reported more frequently by highly educated participants who worked from home than by those who did not (none, 3.1%; part of the time, 18.3%; all the time, 21.6%; Supplementary Fig. 1). Participants reporting an improved quality of life more frequently reported an improved perceived productivity (19.7% vs. 12.7%) compared to those reporting a decreased quality of life.
Older participants, men, and persons not working from home were most likely to report no changes in quality of life or perceived productivity (Fig. 1 and supplementary Fig. 1).
Correlates of positive and negative changes
In multivariable-adjusted models, among men, younger age, living in an urban area, being in short-time work, and experiencing high financial strain significantly and positively correlated with improved quality of life. Furthermore, men with an university degree, compared to those less educated (high school or less), (OR 1.58, 95% CI 0.78–3.22) and men married or in a partnership, compared to single men (OR 1.78, 95% CI 0.80–3.94), appeared more likely to report an improved quality of life. Men taking care of children between 6 and 16 years were more likely to report a decreased quality of life compared to men without children this age. Furthermore, being in short-time work and experiencing a higher financial strain significantly and positively correlated with decreased quality of life in men (Table 2).
Among women, younger age, being single and being in short-time work significantly and positively correlated with improved quality of life. Women who were married or in a partnership were less likely (OR 0.49, 95% CI 0.25–0.94) to report an increased quality of life, compared to single women. Women taking care of children between 6 and 16 years were more likely to report a decreased quality of life compared to women without children this age and compared to women not having to take care of their 6–16-year-old children. Being retired or unemployed, a high financial strain, and lower levels of optimism correlated significantly and positively with decreased quality of life in women (Table 2).
Older and more highly educated men experiencing a higher financial strain and were more likely to report increased productivity during the COVID-19 mitigation period, compared to the time before (Table 3). In contrast, short-time work seemed to be less beneficial for productivity (OR 0.52, 95% CI 0.20–1.39). Having children appeared to be associated with increased productivity in men, although men taking care of children younger than 6 years were more likely to report decreased productivity. A high financial strain also correlated with decreased productivity (Table 3).
Older women were less likely to report increased productivity at work (OR 0.20, 95% CI 0.06–0.75) compared to younger women, as were women with a university degree compared to those less educated (high school or less) and women employed part-time compared to full-time employees. Women in short-time work were more likely to report decreased productivity compared to women not in short-time work, and a high financial strain and taking care of children between 6 and 16 years correlated significantly and positively with decrease quality of life (Table 3).
Association of work from home with changes in quality of life and perceived productivity
Overall, participants who worked from home all the time during the COVID-19 mitigation period were more likely to report an increased quality of life (OR 3.69, 95% CI 1.86–7.29), compared to participants who were not working from home. The effect was similar for men (OR 4.11, 95% CI 1.30–13.0) and women (OR 3.33, 95% CI 1.34–8.29; Table 4). Similarly, working part of the time from home was associated with an increased quality of life (OR 2.07, 95% CI 1.09–3.91). Effect estimates had the same direction when stratifying by gender, but did not reach statistical significance. Furthermore, not working from home seemed to be associated with a decreased quality of life compared to working partially or all the time from home (Table 4). These results did not change importantly after further adjustment for changes in perceived productivity.
In contrast, participants working part or all of the time from home appeared more likely to report decreased productivity (vs. not working from home, partially: OR 1.42, 95% CI 0.86–2.35; all the time: OR 1.48, 95% CI 0.85–2.58) (Table 4).