How COVID-19 shaped the perception of work of mature Australian employees: Insights from a large-scale survey of work during the pandemic
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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been much attention given to the way inherent aspects of work and jobs are being altered, potentially in irreversible ways. The implications for the mature workforce are especially critical given that ongoing ageing demographic trends had already been testing traditional ways of organizing work (Rudolph et al., 2021). Theoretical frameworks such as differential susceptibility (Belsky & Pluess, 2009) and differential impact (Ungar, 2017) support the idea that age can play a significant role in how employees experience the effects of the ongoing pandemic. While differential susceptibility points towards the need to look into age as a risk factor for pandemic related outcomes, differential impact theory points more towards interactions between resources and environment in shaping these consequences. Through a diversity climate and work design lens, we investigate the way work experiences of Australian mature employees have been impacted across different time points during the COVID-19 pandemic (peak lockdown stage, easing of restrictions, vaccination roll-out), and how these further relate to employee and organizational outcomes. We pay a particular interest to meaningful work as a psychological resource that has the potential to offset the negative effects of the pandemic for mature workers by strengthening employees’ perceptions of self-worth, personal agency, and maintaining work engagement (Bailey et al., 2018; Johnson & Jiang, 2016). Participants (N=1583) recruited through an online panel services provider took part in a large-scale longitudinal survey study. Recruitment was restricted to Australian employees who were 45 or over at the time of the survey. The first wave of data was collected in May-June 2020 during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, while people across Australia were still under strict lockdown measures. A second wave of data (N=757) was collected in October-November 2020 as some of the Australian states were easing restrictions and facilitating return to work while others were still dealing with the challenges of second waves of community transmissions. A third wave of data collection (N=383) was collected in May-June 2021, when most restrictions had been eased and the vaccine was being rolled out across most of Australia. The fourth wave of data (N=153) was collected in September-October 2021 when some Australian states were again under harder lockdown restrictions due to a third wave of infections with the delta variant. The mean age of the participants was 57.84 years (range between 45 and 86 years old) and 53% of them were women. More than half (56%) reported being employed on a permanent or ongoing basis, 17.4% were on casual contracts and 13.7% were self-employed. Remaining participants were either retired or unemployed and were excluded from the present analysis. Average tenure in current job was 13 years (SD=11). On average, participants reported working 29.5 hours per week (SD=15.12). The measures included in the survey covered a wide range of work-related factors such as COVID-related changes to jobs and work (eg. redeployment, working from home), work characteristics, work engagement, wellbeing, job satisfaction, burnout, age diversity climate, and HR practices aimed at mature employees. Preliminary results point towards negative trends in mature employees’ experiences at work, with age diversity climate, relational work characteristics and perceptions of employability showing significant decreases during the first two waves of data collection. However, the last two waves indicate that scores are slowly returning back to the initial levels. An exception is represented by perceptions of human resource practices aimed at knowledge sharing and diversity integration which plateaued after displaying a negative trend across wave 1 and 2 of data collection, highlighting that current measures implemented to manage the pandemic might have negative implications for knowledge exchange processes at work. Last but not least, our research indicates that work constituted a source of meaning for mature employees during the pandemic and that perceptions of meaning in one’s work were further associated with better employee wellbeing. Further results based on a full analysis including all four waves of data collection and a more detailed comparison across the different states will be presented at the time of the conference. This study relies on self-report data collected at four points in time. Moreover, participation was restricted to Australian mature employees only, limiting our opportunities to compare experiences of mature workers with younger counterparts or with mature workers in other countries. As the development of the pandemic took a particular trajectory in Australia, the results of this study might not be generalizable to other countries where the effects of the pandemic have been felt more strongly. However, given the contrasting measures implemented by different states, this study might provide valuable comparative information on different approaches aimed at managing the pandemic and their implications for the way mature employees experience work. Overall, the present study provides a comprehensive view of how a large sample of Australian mature employees have experienced their work and the changes associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, this study represents one of the very few systematic, longitudinal investigations into the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mature workforce in Australia.
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