The coronavirus (COVID-19) global pandemic has very much been the focus of 2020. The outbreak was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, and by March 2020 had spread worldwide. In response to this unprecedented public health emergency, governments around the world had to act fast in an attempt to reduce transmission of the virus.
From mid-March lockdown measures were enforced across many countries, closing shops, businesses, workplaces, schools, and university campuses; thousands of events were cancelled, and many services were stripped back to basics or put entirely on-hold. Strict social distancing guidelines were also introduced meaning people were unable to see members of their family, as well as friends and colleagues. These measures significantly altered usual activities, routines, and livelihoods for millions of people and were seen to have a worrying impact on people’s mental health. Emerging research from countries further along in the pandemic (i.e., China and Italy) indicated there has been a substantial negative effect on well-being, accompanied by a noticeable rise in reported mental health concerns.
Earlier in the year, a team of researchers from Teesside University, Sheffield Hallam and the University of Lincoln ran a study to examine how the COVID-19 pandemic may have altered our psychological wellbeing, and aspects of our mental health. The study also aimed to look at how people’s sleep patterns and sleep-timing preferences may have been affected. Between April 2020 and June 2020, the team ran an online survey to capture the thoughts and feelings of people experiencing these new restrictions. While this took place during the first UK lockdown (March – June), the survey was also extended to those outside of the UK. In total 200 participants responded to the survey, of which 92.5% were based in the UK.
Participants in the study were asked three questions regarding the ways in which their lifestyle may have changed due to the pandemic. The first asked whether they were self-isolating due to exposure or fear of the virus, the second asked whether they had transitioned to remote working, and the third asked if they were experiencing a loss of work hours or income due to the pandemic. The participants were also asked about their thoughts and feelings regarding the pandemic and completed some questionnaires relating to sleep problems, mental well-being, anxiety and depression (mood) symptoms, as well as feelings of loneliness, and sleep-time preferences.
The researchers found that, overall, people who were self-isolating due the virus reported increased feelings of loneliness, lower mood and poorer mental well-being. Similarly, people who had experienced reduced work hours or loss of income also reported increased loneliness and lower mood and well-being, as well as poorer sleep. However, individuals who had started to work from home during the pandemic reported better sleep quality overall. It was also found that many people shifted to a later sleep-time preference meaning they were waking up later in the morning and going to sleep later in the evening/night. This may indicate that the lack of a necessity to get up as early to travel to the workplace has enabled people to embrace their ‘night owl’ tendencies.
The researchers also asked participants to rate the intensity of worrying thoughts about the pandemic; the level of concern about becoming severely ill from catching the virus; and how quickly they believed the virus was spreading throughout the country. They were asked to respond to these questions on a scale from one to five. Unsurprisingly, high rankings of each of these concerns were found to be related to increases in anxiety and depression as well as decreases in quality of sleep.
The research team concluded that the social and economic changes people have experienced due to the COVID19 pandemic have so far had a profoundly negative impact on mental health and well-being. It is clear that this time of crisis is generating stress throughout the population and we must prepare to deal with a rise in mental health concerns as these restrictions continue.
However, on a more positive note the transition to working remotely appears to have been somewhat beneficial for some individuals in terms of their sleep and sleep timing preferences. Now that we begin to see some light at the end of the tunnel, with a vaccine on the horizon, continuation in flexible working may be something worth considering. Not only during these challenging times but also in the longer-term transition to the ‘new normal’.
Dr Sarah Allen, Lecturer in Psychology at Teesside University
Centre of Applied Psychological Science, Health and Well-being theme
*A research paper documenting the findings of this study is currently going through the peer-review publication process.