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We are members of an Athena Swan Workload Allocation Group at Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences (University of Oxford). In this role, we are preparing to develop a questionnaire exploring how people’s workload is allocated and managed by them; it will be sent to all staff in the new year. Findings will be used to direct departmental policy on workload allocation.

To better understand current experience, and to inform what we ask on the questionnaire, we held discussions with 19 colleagues (some on their own, others in groups) on the topic of workload. We tried to involve a range of individuals – researchers, those based in the clinical trials unit, and professional and support staff. Most colleagues spoke to us in late April/early May.

Discussions were scheduled to take place over a shared lunch. However, due to COVID-19, they were moved online. These circumstances meant we also asked people about how they were managing their workload during the pandemic. Here, we share some of the key issues raised on this specific topic. What is written below might resonate with your own experiences and make you feel less alone in any difficulties you have encountered during this time. It might prompt you to reflect on your current situation, or how to support staff you line manage, as we acclimatise to new and potentially dynamic working conditions.  

Perceptions of workload shaped by individual conditions

Expecting and accepting fluctuations in productivity, mood and energy were key issues to arise when we talked to colleagues about workload during the pandemic. They described having to get accustomed to a new working pattern and environment. This could make workload seem more taxing - especially if impeded by a lack of equipment (e.g. extra computer screens) and not having as much contact with colleagues. Furthermore, accommodating other demands, such as caring for children and home-schooling, or looking after older relatives, could affect people’s ability to focus on tasks and made it difficult to have clear, uninterrupted periods of work time.   

Some individuals recalled how, at the start of lockdown, things were changing quickly, which made them unsure about how to be responsive and how to keep abreast of existing work whilst also reacting to new opportunities (e.g. COVID-related research).

Benefits from home working were proposed. A lack of commute meant many colleagues had extra time in the day. For some, it offered a period when writing tasks (e.g. papers) could be undertaken. In addition, it allowed individuals to schedule work around other household tasks. Taking proper breaks in the day (e.g. for lunch) also seemed easier, due in part to a reduced sense of comparison with colleagues (e.g. not judging one’s productivity against others because they were not visible).

A clear downside was a lack of delineation between home and work. Visibility of workload in the home was greater, as bedrooms or kitchen tables became impromptu office spaces. This could account for some reports of poorer sleeping and difficulty ‘switching off’, with a lack of variety to the week depicted as disorientating.

People stated that it could be harder to know if there were tasks with which they could assist colleagues during the pandemic; this stemmed from a concern about bothering line managers (perceived to be extremely busy by the way they talked about juggling a number of tasks), and from a lack of informal chats (e.g. in the office kitchen) when you learn if anyone wants help. Those who were very new to the department, who had not yet established working relationships with colleagues, or even met some of them in real life, might especially struggle with this.

Anxiety was expressed that workload could escalate once back in the office, if certain activities (e.g. paperwork and its filing) had been suspended. In addition, there was concern about job security for those on short-term contracts. Lack of personal development opportunities going forward was also mentioned because of potential financial constraints.

Positive examples of workload management

The following were some positive things we were told about when we talked to colleagues about managing workload during the pandemic:

  • Discussing work priorities with line managers, on a regular basis, was important. This might involve asking what work should be put on hold if more urgent tasks arrived and seeking help to delegate work.
  • Working remotely increased a feeling of being trusted and reduced the possibility for micromanagement. When trusted by line managers, an individual’s sense of responsibility to successfully handle their workload was augmented.
  • Empathetic line managers were praised, who acknowledged potential difficulties that staff may encounter from remote working during the pandemic; for example, when line managers provided reassurance, by using phrases such as ‘you can only do so much’, and when they checked on how an individual was coping with the situation (rather than asking solely about their work progress). This provided an opening for further discussion about work-related pressures.

Participants expressed their thanks for the opportunity to share their experiences of workload and its allocation - an important reminder that action in this area should be grounded in staff feedback.

Further information

If you want to read more, there are numerous pieces of writing on workplace leadership during the pandemic and recovery from it (e.g. a leadership toolkit, resources on post-pandemic planning), and ways to adjust to and manage remote working. Taking annual leave seems to be important, to recharge and refresh. Creative ways of managing this, when travel is restricted, have been proposed, including activities to carry out with children.

Stephanie Tierney is a Departmental Lecturer and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, University of Oxford.

Tanvi Rai is a Researcher in Health Interventions within the Medical Sociology and Health Experiences Research Group, University of Oxford.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors and not necessarily those of their host institution or the NIHR.