SPPH early-career researchers review impacts of working in a pandemic environment

November 16, 2021

Two early-career researchers at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health (SPPH), postdoctoral fellow Dr. Sonja Senthanar and researcher Dr. Jonathan Fan, examined the work and health impacts of working in a pandemic environment.

The work, funded by WorkSafeBC, was conducted through SPPH’s Partnership for Work, Health and Safety, an innovative research unit that combines rigorous work and health research with effective knowledge translation.  Drs. Senthanar and Fan’s paper in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health highlights the socioeconomic, demographic, and work factors that contribute to health outcomes, and suggests potential risk mitigation and intervention strategies.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a wide array of research has investigated the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on work, employment and health. Given the enormity of these policy challenges and the volume of research, it can be challenging for busy decision-makers to keep up with all of the literature being published. Drs. Senthanar and Fan conducted a review to summarize this work, inform best practices for the work and health of workers during a pandemic, and to identify future research priorities.

“We anticipated a large volume of existing research, much of it contained in systematic reviews, as well as rapidly evolving research on COVID-19,” explains Dr. Fan. “We needed a method to combine the overall body of evidence and synthesize findings in a rigorous manner. To do so, we conducted an ‘umbrella review’, which typically yields the highest quality and most definitive body of evidence by summarizing across existing systematic reviews at a higher level of aggregation,” he adds.

The review found that research to date has focused on health care workers’ risk of infection and the negative mental health consequences arising from work in a pandemic environment, as well as a variety of individual, social, and organizational factors associated with these outcomes.

Dr. Fan notes that much of the evidence examining the work and health impacts of pandemics is generated from studies on health care workers. “The focus of research has been on health care workers, yet the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the infection and mental health risks faced by several worker groups, including essential workers and laborers across industry sectors.” Dr. Fan explains. “We didn’t find a large body of evidence focusing on these other populations, which highlights the need for evidence reviews on other occupational groups in addition to health care workers.”


Dr. Sonja Senthanar and Dr. Jonathan Fan


Although research conducted during the pandemic has identified work-related inequities related to job loss and reduced work hours for precarious, low wage workers, women and racialized workers, equity considerations were not frequently discussed in previous reviews of the research. Drs. Senthanar and Fan argue these considerations should be adopted as a principle of research funding and evidence use.

The pandemic has also highlighted and exacerbated mental health concerns and made evident the need for greater interventions to support workers. In the review, Drs. Senthanar and Fan note several strategies to address mental health outcomes including developing occupational health and social support systems and providing appropriate services to reduce distress in health care workers. At the same time, they note there is a considerable need to develop a consensus on core psychological interventions as well as the need to demonstrate effectiveness of intervention and risk mitigation approaches.

There is also a need for research that considers the long-term consequences of transitioning to the post-COVID-19 economy. Drs. Senthanar and Fan explain that workplaces may face new challenges in accommodating disabled or injured workers and creating an environment that meets evolving safety needs, but there are also opportunities for collaboration to overcome these challenges.

“As mentioned by Dr. Fan, we hope this work promotes research on other working groups particularly along the lines of precarity (e.g. gig workers, laborers), gender, and racialization but also points to the need for collaboration at the intersections of public health, workers’ compensation and governmental/labour standards to comprehensively address the health and safety needs of workers working in a pandemic environment,” Dr. Senthanar adds. “Through these efforts we are able to highlight inequities between working groups, where they exist, and have the potential to develop appropriate policy and practice solutions that can adequately prepare us for future epidemic/pandemics.”


This story was adapted from work by Dawn Mooney for the Partnership for Work, Health and Safety at SPPH.