During the Covid-19 pandemic, healthcare trusts across the UK rapidly implemented remote working for many staff to protect the physical health of patients and employees. However, little was known about the psychological impact of this shift in working on employees. 

In this new study published in BJPsych Open, ARC South London applied informatics researchers at King's College London, investigated how remote working affected healthcare staff at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (SLaM) during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The researchers surveyed 520 SLaM employees, including 112 men and 406 women, about their experiences with remote work, asking about productivity, stress, job satisfaction, loneliness, isolation, wellbeing and perceived social support. 

The results showed that before the Covid-19 pandemic, only 3.1% of respondents worked remotely – increasing to 96.9% during the pandemic. Those who worked remotely for 31 or more hours each week reported higher stress levels and lower job satisfaction compared to office-based work, although they felt more productive.

Those who worked longer hours remotely reported increased stress, possibly due to a lack of resources and support for this rapid shift in work environments

Dr Mariana Pinto da Costa, senior lecturer, King's College London, and the study's senior author

Half of respondents experienced moderate (or higher) levels of loneliness. Average scores on the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) – used for identifying non-psychotic and minor psychiatric disorders – were 16.5, suggesting significant mental distress, as scores over 12 indicate a potential clinical case.

Greater loneliness, workplace isolation and lack of social support also correlated with lower current wellbeing among respondents.

With remote working arrangements in the NHS expected to grow in the future – bringing benefits including greater flexibility, time savings and reduced travel costs – understanding and mitigating remote work's negative effects on employee wellbeing is crucial. Poor staff wellbeing is closely linked to patient errors, which costs the NHS an estimated £3.3 billion each year.

Organisations should provide workplace conditions that promote positive wellbeing of NHS healthcare workers. Poorer wellbeing impacts not just the employee, but also colleagues, patients and the organisation

Dearbhla O'Hare, King's College London, and the study's lead author