An Assessment Among AgriLife Extension Employees
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in mid-March, Extension employees, like others, had to homeschool children, become substitute child care providers, and become caregivers for elderly parents and disabled family members – all while continuing to fulfill the mission of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
To understand the impact that COVID-19 has had on AgriLife employees and to identify needed support, members of the Health and Wellness Strategy team developed and implemented a cross-sectional survey in September 2020. The survey assessed perceived changes in work, exercise, sleep, and perceived stress related to the pandemic. Open-ended questions were used to assess major employee concerns, as well as suggestions for resources or policies to assist employees with their job responsibilities during the pandemic. Finally, the survey inquired about the amount of vacation time that went unused this past year and reasons why employees did not use their earned time off. More than sixteen hundred (n=1,627) employees across the agency were invited to participate with 1,001 completing the survey (61.5% response rate). Nearly 64% of respondents were female, 40% identified their position as Agent, and 79% were employed full-time. As of September, more than half (51%) of AgriLife employees reported having a friend or family member test positive for COVID-19.
Impact of COVID-19 on work and home responsibilities of AgriLife Extension Employees
- From mid-March to July, nearly 34% of employees reported having to facilitate homeschooling, while 15% gave care to elderly and/or disabled family members. Almost 18% provided care to young children due to daycare closures.
- 41% of respondents identified perceived work expectations since COVID-19 as “much more” or “moderately more” during the pandemic.
Impact of COVID-19 on Sleep, Exercise, and Meditation Habits
- Nearly half of the respondents to this question reported getting less sleep during the pandemic.
- Of the 757 employees who reported that they engage in physical activity at least once a week, 18% said they were exercising more during the pandemic, while 40% indicated that they were exercising less.
Perceived Stress Among Employees
Perceived stress among employees was measured using the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). This 10-item instrument is a scored tool used to gauge how unpredictable, uncontrollable, and overloaded participants have felt. Scores range from 0 to 40, with higher scores indicating an increased perceived level of stress. Scores from 0-13 are considered low perceived stress, while those in the 14-26 and 27-40 ranges suggest moderate- and high-perceived stress, respectively. Perceived stress was assessed at two points in time: (1) during the initial months of the pandemic and (2) within the past month of participating in the employee survey.
70% of respondents experienced moderate to high stress during the initial months of the pandemic and this level of stress persisted in more than 60% of the employees as late as August. Agents, Specialists, and Extension Assistants/Associates had perceived stress scores higher than those with other titles but were still within the moderate stress category.
Use of Employee Work/Life Solutions
Employees were asked to identify the extent to which they used work/life balance resources provided by GuidanceResources® during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic. These resources are offered to all employees, separately from insurance, and include counseling services and training programs. Of those who responded to this question (n=828), nearly 64% responded that they had “never” or “almost never” used any of the resources; 5% used the resources “fairly often” or “very often;” and 13% were not aware these benefits existed.
Use of Vacation/Time Off
Nearly three-fourths of the employees who responded to the question regarding vacation time used in the past fiscal year (n=829) reported not using their accrued vacation time. Of those who did not use their vacation hours, 240 reported having excess vacation time roll into sick leave. Reasons for not using vacation time were reported by 517 employees and reflected five major areas: (1) saving for future needs; (2) workload was too great/no one else to cover duties if gone; (3) guilt about taking time off/fear of others’ perceptions; (4) COVID-19; and (5) finances.
When asked to share their concerns (related to work or home), 667 employees responded. Thirteen themes were identified: (1) becoming infected and the continued spread of COVID-19; (2) work/life balance and caring for children; (3) protecting vulnerable family members; (4) safety at work; (5) job security; (6) finances; (7) stress, mental health, and social isolation; (8) inconsistent or contradictory communication from Admin/Manager/Counties (9) lack of support from supervisors; (10) struggles with technology and delivering programs virtually (11) workload being too great or including tasks outside of scope of work; (12) returning to “normal”; and (13) politics and the presidential election.
Participants were invited to offer ideas, resources, or policies that would help them manage their job and family responsibilities during the pandemic. The 667 responses were categorized into nine themes: (1) more technological support; (2) long-term schedule flexibility and alternate work locations; (3) increased support for employees with young children; (4) improved communication in general; (5) improved communication about employee benefits; (6) increased time off and/or wages; (7) equal and consistent treatment of employees; (8) greater support of employee mental and physical health; and (9) decreased workload.
The results from the AgriLife Employee COVID-19 Stress Assessment reveal the extent to which employees have been impacted by the pandemic. In addition to taking on more responsibilities at home, most respondents have experienced an increase in work expectations since COVID-19 began. Large proportions also reported experiencing moderate stress levels, while simultaneously sleeping and exercising less than they did before the pandemic. Because of the known impacts that stress and lifestyle factors have on a person’s overall health and wellbeing, these are concerns. There are also known benefits to taking time off from work, yet three-fourths of respondents indicated that they did not use the time off that they earned this year. Whether not taking vacation is an anomaly for 2020 or a symptom of a larger issue remains unknown but is worth exploring.
Next steps should be explored by agency leadership in conjunction with internal stakeholders, such as the agency sounding board.
Possible considerations for the future
- Increase trainings, resources, and tools related to technology and digital education to enable employees to effectively educate clientele virtually; Prioritize the training needs assessment currently being planned by the Tool Box Unit.
- Improve marketing and communication about GuidanceResources® and other employee benefits.
- Expand the employee assistance program so services are available outside of business hours.
- Increase time allowed for physical activity during the work week.
- Continue or expand flexible work hours and the ability to work from alternate work locations on a long-term basis.
- Explore concerns regarding perceived inconsistent standards and treatment of employees depending on position, manager, district, etc. and seek solutions as appropriate.
- Strengthen communication about agent job priorities/expectations in order to focus their workload.
- Actively promote an agency culture and management that encourages employees to utilize their earned time off to avoid burnout.