13 November 2020

Working environment among frontline employees during the COVID-19 pandemic in Denmark

Responding to an acute need for data and solutions to support the working environment of frontline employees during COVID-19

By Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen & Charlotte Juul Nilsson

Our first step to initiate a research project

As the pandemic became a reality in Denmark, we saw a need for research addressing the working environment among frontline workers, particularly outside the hospital sector. These groups are relevant for public health, because their behavior at work plays a major role in the society’s response to the pandemic, for instance regarding the hindrance of spread of virus. Yet, previous research during this and previous virus outbreaks, has mainly investigated employees working in hospital settings.

Responding to an acute need for data and solutions – a nerve wrecking attempt to do research fast

In the early lockdown phase in April researchers at Section of Social Medicine met with the trade union FOA and the Danish Union of Teachers and identified a common interest in investigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the working environment among frontline employees in Denmark. Through this collaboration we got access to FOA’s own data, for instance, on eldercare workers and had the opportunity to initiate a data collection with a few weeks’ notice among school teachers.
The first data collection for the latter study, which we named CLASS, was carried out during the partial COVID-19-related school closure in Denmark in the beginning of May 2020. Thus, these data were collected approximately 2 months after the first COVID-19 case was registered in Denmark. We conducted the first follow-up in June and are currently about to finalize the second follow-up, which will be distributed by the end of November.
Through DLF, we had direct access to their members and were able to collect data with a short notice, while DLF provided us with knowledge about the school system’s response to COVID-19 in Denmark. Labor unions have a direct and unhindered access to their members and their legitimacy is high. Thus, this partnership provided a unique opportunity for an agile data collection in an extraordinary situations like the COVID-19 pandemic. As an example, we have started developing the questionnaires about 3 weeks before the data collection began and made last minute-adaptations because circumstances and guidelines were and are changing with a high speed.

Drawbacks and challenges

Data from FOA was not collected with a research purpose, whereas the CLASS data are. Nevertheless, the short time frame for the development of the CLASS-questionnaire and the continuously changing circumstances did not allow for a thorough validation of the questionnaire, particularly as scales assessing fear of COVID-19 have only recently been published. At the same time, knowledge about the effects on COVID-19 on frontline employees’ working environment is scarce, particularly outside of the hospital sector as most of the literature—perhaps not surprisingly—covers treatment, pandemic hotspots, governmental responses, and clinical patters and complications of COVID-19. Thus, we had limited evidence to build on. Nevertheless, our data cover important emotional aspects of working during a pandemic among important groups of frontline employees.

Reaching the target groups become easier

The close collaboration with the unions gave us access to inside information about the target group and made it possible to use already established communication channels for a prompt dissemination of findings. Thus, our published results and temporary findings have been communicated to the relevant ministries, directly to the relevant groups of employees, e.g. through online magazines, and to occupational health professionals.

Link to debate incl. interview with Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen at 1:22 (in Danish only):