Project Description

Agora
Survey

This second AGORA Survey was run six months after the first one to follow up the evolution of the COVID situation and its impact on stress, working conditions, health and well-being of the staff of the European Public Service. More than two thousand staff (2144) completed the survey, twice as many as the first survey (926).

The survey consisted of seventeen multiple choice questions and two open questions. Fifteen of the multiple choice questions were identical to questions in the previous survey, two specifically regarded the evolution of workload and stress since last September. Although the gender, age and in particular the Institution, distribution of the respondents are a bit different in the two surveys, some serious and worrying trends can be clearly concluded from the comparison between the results of the multiple choice questions in the two surveys.

  1. Firstly, the number of staff regularly working from home has dramatically increased, from 59% to 88%.
  2. The workload has also substantially increased since the beginning of the crisis for 40% of the respondents, (31% in the last survey) and 40% say that it has also increased since last September.
  3. 49% of the respondents feel more work-related stress since the beginning of COVID (46% previously) and 45% feel more work-related stress since last September.
  4. 71% believe their employer has not implemented a clear policy to reduce overload (67% previously).
  5. 44% have to care for children, up from 42% previously.
  6. 58% do not have a specific space/room to work at home (56% in the first survey).
  7. 15% do not feel connected to their colleagues anymore, from 11% in the past survey.
  8. 36% feel they cannot disconnect outside working hours, while it was 34% previously.
  9. Finally, only 59% consider teleworking as a regular advantage compared to 64% in the first survey.

The overall trend is clearly quite negative, and the situation appears to be deteriorating. Only on a very few items the conditions have statistically stayed the same or improved a bit (“Understanding of managers”: positive replies 87% up from 84% in the past; “Did your employer provide the necessary equipment?”: negative replies 18% down from 21% in the past survey).

Despite the fact that still a majority of the respondents consider regular teleworking as a benefit, the results of this second survey and the trends confirm and amplify the alarming signals of the first survey.

In particular since the beginning of the COVID crisis, 40% of the respondents had to cope with a higher workload or more working hours (31% in the first survey), and/or an increase in work related stress (49%, against 46%). A significant number cannot easily disconnect outside working hours (36%, was 34%) and the great majority of the respondents (80%, was 73%) felt, respectively, not connected (15%, was 11%) or more or less connected (65%, was 62%) to their colleagues.

 It is clear that these factors and negative trends will inevitably have dramatic consequences on the health and well-being of, at least a substantial number, of staff of the European Public Service, if suitable and urgent measures are not applied implemented and effectively to resit and reverse this.

As with the first survey, it is interesting to read, summarise and analyse the replies to the multiple choice questions as they better specify and nuance the picture given by quantative results. As before, we will only refer to some aggregate and selected comments.

A. MULTIPLE CHOICE QUESTIONS
(Questions 1-17)

The most important results from the staff point of view have been highlighted.

Concerning question 9: “Do you feel more work-related stress since last September?”

  • Yes, as it is assumed that everything can now work as in a normal situation.
  • More stress because of an increased workload pressure to deliver.
  • Virtual meetings are very tiring on the long run, much more than physical ones.
  • With people working at different hours, working 8 hours a day is not easy.
  • Stress increased at the start of COVID but now it has settled at a higher level.
  • Lack of motivation, missing purpose and connections, lack of social interactions.
  • Change to less paperwork makes work overview more difficult.
  • When the child care is closed, it is a problem.
  • More stress related to balancing time between work and supporting children.
  • People are tired of teleworking and virtual meetings. It affects daily work.
  • The extended period of anxiety makes it more and more difficult to bare.
  • Increase of stress mainly due to difficulty in getting informal checks with colleagues.
  • Difficult to assess if there is more stress, but it is a different kind of stress.

Concerning question 10: “Has your organisation implemented a clear policy to reduce…the overload?”

  • Training on well-being, but no reduction in targets, working hours have shifted to objective oriented results.
  • Head of unit has been very accommodating, but I could not credit this to the organization.
  • No clear policy, but initiatives such as offering mindfulness, increased staff and unit meetings with space to discuss and exchange experiences.
  • Only partially. Targets have been only marginally and not sufficiently reduced. Slow reaction to crisis situation.
  • Not really transparent, even if visible efforts to have a more flexible attitude.
  • No, my DG assumes that work can continue as usual 100% remotely.
  • Not a clear policy, but Head of Unit is very attentive to that.
  • Some efforts were made, but not enough for working parents with young children.
  • There are guidelines, however each manager does what he wants.
  • There is more flexibility and understanding towards staff needs, but no clear reduction to core activities/objectives was put in place.

Concerning question 13: “Do/ did you feel connected to your colleagues while working from home?”

  • Over time it becomes increasingly difficult to keep contact.
  • It is not possible to meet people face to face and it is very difficult to mentor new colleagues.
  • The connection between people in the team is lost to a big extent and collaboration spirit is very low.
  • I need personal contact, video is better than nothing but not enough.
  • Informal exchanges are totally missing, every decision has to be formally arranged.
  • I miss the daily casual exchanges of view, meeting in the corridors, combining small talk about life with professional topics.
  • Many misunderstanding due to lack of personal communication.
  • On a professional level I am connected, but on a personal level I miss them.
  • There is no spontaneous connection anymore.
  • It is very difficult to maintain team spirit and confront ideas when working from home.
  • Totally disconnected. Everybody is stressed out. No empathy.

Concerning question 16: “Do you feel you can/ could easily disconnect outside working hours?”

  • Computer is watching me all the time !
  • It requires a bit of learning to set limits – decide that the working day has finished.
  • You can work whenever you want or can, which is a good thing. This also implies a blurring between private and professional life.
  • The working hours are completely flexible so the notion of outside working hours has become vague.
  • Having the laptop and working files continuously at home is a kind of intrusion of work into my private life.
  • I hid the computer in a corner outside working hours.
  • It depends on the Council calendar: when it is very busy, it is not easy to disconnect.
  • Depends on the day: in days of high stress, it is more difficult to disconnect.
  • Some colleagues send whatsapp messages to all outside working hours and at weekends.
  • I check my emails until very late, later than when I worked at the office.
  • Working much longer hours, connecting already before the breakfast and before going to bed as the laptop is close by.
  • It is difficult to disconnect from work as all the activities are prohibited and everything is closed.

Concerning question 17: “Would you consider teleworking as a regular advantage afterwards?”

  • On a voluntary basis, as an alternance with the office.
  • Three days per week.
  • Up to three days a week.
  • 1 or 2 days a week.
  • Yes, but not exceeding 50% of working days on a weekly average.
  • A degree of flexibility is good, but not full teleworking.
  • Several days per month could be advantageous.
  • Yes but not 100% of time. A balance between work at the office and telework would suit everyone.
  • I would prefer 50% office, 50% teleworking.
  • If allowed to telework from my member State where my wife works, yes!
  • 2 days a week but no more.
  • Yes 3 days a week – 2 days to keep team spirit, social exchanges and movement.
  • Yes , totally if I have the right conditions.
  • 1 or 2 days per week, keeping my office.

B. OPEN QUESTIONS
(Questions 18 and 19)

Concerning question 18: “How did/ do you cope with your current working situation?”

More than 2000 respondents left a comment under this open question, identical to question 16 of the previous survey. It is not here the place to make a detailed analysis of all this huge amount of  comments. However, it appears, as in the previous survey, that overall the comments are quite balanced and positively-minded. As before, we will only summarise the aggregate most critical comments to better understand the worrying results of the multiple choice questions.

  • Not really coping well, I am afraid as pressure, requests, deadlines do not stop, even on a 18th
  • I have more stress. I am connected all the time. Tired, fed up and it is not over yet.
  • The most difficult part of all is to have to deal with the children who are also educated online now. The level of disruption is higher than ever.
  • Missing social contacts, sometimes I struggle with teleworking and taking care of kids/home.
  • I find it depressing, isolating and uninspiring. I miss spontaneous contacts and being physically active.
  • Fed up when seeing the Commission forces us to disrespect our private internet contract conditions and seeing difference of treatment among Institutions.
  • It is very difficult to concentrate on work at home, in particular with children around.
  • It has been difficult to manage the lack of boundaries between the office and home – and sometimes managers do not respect this either.
  • I live alone and suffered isolation. This would be mitigated if the institutions would allow us to work from our country.
  • Quite difficult to be 6 hours per day in conference call without a dedicated office room, when 2 peoples are in teleworking and 3 students in tele-schooling !
  • It is difficult to work in isolation. Mentally difficult. Emotionally difficult to upload the necessary energy to get my job done.
  • Good if there is childcare. Not feasible to telework when home schooling.
  • At the edge of being overwhelmed, working very long hours and difficult to cope with family/children. Hierarchy says to be understanding, however, no changes in deadlines and workload. I will not be able to continue this rhythm until the summer.
  • First it was okay, but after a few months I became very tired.
  • Lot of stress, stress for not being able to see parents, to travel to place of origin.
  • I have difficulties to disconnect, get very tired.
  • Take drugs. The lack of contacts is having a huge impact on the mood.
  • Difficult to concentrate, communicate with colleagues, find right balance between work and private life.
  • Under stress, the production goals remain the same, the pressure as even increased and the expectations of management is higher due to digitisation.
  • High level of prolonged and sustained stress.
  • This second wave is worst psychologically as it seems endless. I am getting mad.
  • Workflow is more cumbersome. Lifestyle is less healthy: less movement.
  • OK at the beginning, but with time passing and still in lockdown, it is demoralising.
  • It is difficult and stressful: no dedicated working space at home, low quality of internet, feeling blue because of the isolation.
  • As a newcomer, I feel more and more distancing from the team, which gives me a sentiment of loneliness and being unconfident on the quality of the work I do.
  • Exhausting, missing a clear strategy on organisational level and in general.
  • Burnout symptoms. I am considering part-time.
  • It was extremely difficult when I had to care of my children. Now it is difficult because I cannot see my colleagues.
  • Difficult in the beginning then gradually accustomed to it.
  • I am completely exhausted and over stressed. Coronavirus takes its toll, but the heavy workload is more to blame.
  • Difficult to deliver quality outputs due to the high multiple tasks and urgencies, i.e. immediate reactions to emails is “required”.
  • Professionally OK, mentally/psychologically not very OK.
  • There seems to be no end to the tunnel. It is getting more and more complicated.
  • Teleworking is OK for routine jobs, but I miss the creative exchange with colleagues – in zoom meetings people tends to say less, discuss less.
  • The absence of boundaries between work and private life are difficult to handle. There is a flux of emails in evenings and week-ends. The number of meetings has also significantly increase.

Although these selected comments are only some of the most critical comments to question 18, and the majority of the respondents to this question, as it was the case in the previous survey, managed quite well under the circumstances, these critical comments should be taken very seriously because they clearly indicate that at least a significant part of the staff of the European Public Service cannot cope with the present situation, and for some of them the situation is worsening and the level of stress is increasing. In particular, it emerges from many comments that there is a sense of general fatigue, and lack of hope for not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. This aspect was only marginally present in the comments to question 16 of the first survey.

Concerning question 19: “What do you think your organisation could/ should have done better in the management of the Coronavirus crisis?”

Almost 2000 respondents, 1887 to be precise, made a comment or a suggestion. As for the previous question, it is not here the place to make a detailed analysis of all the comments and suggestions, which could be used to extract information and lessons useful for the future. Instead, we will only list a number of aggregate comments which seem to highlight the most important concerns and issues. Here they are:

  • My organisation should have lowered goals and be more flexible with deadlines. This would have reduced the stress level among staff. It should have had a more human approach.
  • More resources should have been dedicated to the Resources and Service Center.
  • Better distribution of the work among staff. Due to the crisis, work has been reduced in some unities and increased in others.
  • Provide necessary working equipment at home from day one. Ensure proper and timely access to IT hardware. React more quickly. Contribute a bit to the cost of teleworking. Better ergonomics.
  • Be realistic, more humane and more pragmatic – back to the office exercise in September when the virus was not under control was a mistake, due to a dogmatic approach.
  • Good HR communication about the Coronavirus situation, but at the DGT level, very little has been done to ease the work related stress.
  • Better and more timely communication, in particular concerning COVID.
  • More telework from abroad (EU countries – home country).
  • Officially recognize and allow the right to disconnection.
  • More specific and general guidelines. Equal rules and implementation in all DGs and unit. Guidelines for the good use of emails, proper recess between video conferences, no on-line meetings after 17h00…
  • Better concertation between the different (EU) Institutions.
  • The administration actions were concentrated on “business as usual”. It should have rather acted on the notion of “best effort” and lowered the production pressure of their staff.
  • Prioritise more. COVID created a lot of extra work. On top of that came Brexit and this created a lot of working pressure on the staff. Work should have been prioritised, better planned and distributed.
  • Have more trust in the staff. Show more flexibility in allowing teleworking from abroad.
  • Improve the functioning and the ergonomics of the IT tools.
  • Drastically reduce production pressure. Make clear with actions that health is more important than production.
  • More humane management, reduce business continuity narrative, stop taking advantage of COVID to push far reaching reforms.
  • Provide a better medical support. Medical support is bad in the Council and excellent in the Parliament. Harmonise practices between Institutions.
  • Manage the situation independently of national authorities to speed up the reaction to crisis.
  • Check the proper working of the different DGS and units especially in times of crisis.
  • Check how individuals are coping, especially staff living alone.
  • Faster reaction, especially at a beginning of a crisis.
  • Take more into account human aspects and social interactions. Offer more psychological support.

Reading through the comments and suggestions it appears that some are specific to the different Institutions/Organizations. However, on the whole there is a majority of comments/suggestions which deal with issues of general concern like:

  • Better and timely planning, better concertation with the Staff representation.
  • Better and timely communication to the staff.
  • Faster reaction time.
  • More harmonisation inside and between the different Institutions/Organisations in terms of rules and their implementation; provide general guidelines if necessary.
  • Have a more human centred approach, less focused on (short) terms business results, but more on the well-being of the staff: lower targets, be more flexible…
  • Be more open to constructive discussions with staff and Staff representation: have a less dogmatic approach, show more trust in staff.
  • Provide top medical and psychological support in all Institutions/Organisations.
  • Enhance the IT capabilities and their proper functioning.
  • Provide working equipment for teleworking in a timely manner.
  • Provide IT and ergonomics support to teleworkers.
  • Introduce “right to disconnect” guidelines.

Regarding teleworking, the comments/suggestions under question 17 are generally more telling than the ones under question 19, which appear to be more linked to the working environment of the specific Institution/Organisation. The comments under question 17 seem to indicate that the majority of the respondents are in favour of part time teleworking (2 to 3 days per week). However these comments refer only to the respondents who replied “Yes and no” in question 17 (28,2%) , and so they cannot be interpreted as the opinion of the majority of the respondents.

To conclude, the results of the second survey confirm the worrying picture depicted by the first one and show a dangerous negative trend from an already alarming situation. We can only hope that the measures that are and will be undertaken by our Institutions/Organisations and the present vaccination campaign will be effective enough to finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and change the present trend, before the next (probable) AGORA survey in six month.

I would like to thank all the numerous respondents who took their time to fill in the survey, and Noémie Mertens, in particular, for her valuable help in preparing and running the survey.

If you want to know more or are further interested in the details of the survey please click here.

Roberto Righetti

Member of the USF Federal Bureau,
and Member of the SUEPO-TH Bureau.

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