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Smart-Working In The Period Of Emergency Due To Covid-19: Study On The Perception Of Work-Related Stress

Research Article
Authors: Antili Lorenzo,Pieroni Catia,Principi Massimo


Antili Lorenzo1
Coauthor: Pieroni Catia2, Principi Massimo3

1Dottore in Tecniche della Prevenzione nell’ambiente e nei luoghi di lavoro – TPALL – Università Politecnica delle Marche
2Direttore Attività Didattiche e Professionalizzanti CdS TPALL – Università Politecnica delle Marche
3Tutor CdS TPALL – Università Politecnica delle Marche


Pubblication Date: 2022-11
Printed on: Volume 4


2020 was distinguish by the development of a new coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, that belong to the same virus family as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). In March 2020 The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a state of global pandemic. The current pandemic had a giant impact and heavy repercussions in economical, organizational, and social themes. During the period January-March 2020, Sars-CoV-2 infections increased dramatically in the world, so governments of many countries, including Italy, adopted containment measures like temporary closuring of work activities, that encourages the development of smart-working. This is defined, by Italian legislation, as “a method of execution of the employment relationship established by agreement between the parties, also with forms of organization by phases, cycles and objectives and without precise time or workplace, with the possible use of technological tools for carrying out the work activity”. Smart-working was initially conceived as a temporary solution but due to the increase of coronavirus cases, it continues to be applied, compatibly with the tasks performed by workers. This left employers and employees a short time to prepare themselves for this new way of working, to be able to guarantee the continuation of production activities and at the same time to preserve workers and all citizens health. This context may have generated situations of work-related stress, which occurs when work environment’s demands exceed the ability of the worker to deal with them. It must be added two factors: continuous technological transformations and new forms and methods of work, that can have relevant implications for workers health and safety. Another important aspect concerns the tendency of individuals in remaining constantly connected to internet, the frequent use of technological equipment known as “hyper connection”; this causes the development of anxiety and tension, which creates a sense of space-time detachment and determines the onset of Technostress.

The Goal

The research aims to investigate, through the administration of an anonymous questionnaire, how agile workers have experienced the stressors, through self-assessment of psycho-physical and environmental conditions during the pandemic.

In particular, the goal is to provide a contribution regarding the application of smart-working, corroborating positive and negative impacts that this model has on both the effectiveness in carrying out the activities, both on satisfaction and work well-being, without neglecting possible benefits and

critical issues. The research is aimed at identifying three main areas:

  1. perception of the main stress factors found among workers interviewee;
  2. psychological and physical repercussions of agile work seen as a remedy during the emergency period;
  3. main positive and negative aspects in the implementation of smart-working during the period of global pandemic.

Items And Methods

In order to implement the research objectives, I made a questionnaire consisting of 29 questions, most of which were multiple choice questions. There was the possibility to add a personal comment, too. For the questionnaire compilation was used Google Forms and the data collection took place in March 2021. The questionnaire was completely anonymous. It was administered online, to both public and private companies (municipalities, schools, etc.), for a total of 114 workers. The data was collected in compliance with the privacy law. It was divided into three sections. The first section collected social information and personal data: sex, age and residence. The second section collected information about field experience of smart-working (instruments, technological supports, places, etc.).  In the third section, I asked workers about psycho/physical consequences related to the agile work.

There was three core questions, namely:

  • main positive aspects from an individual point of view;
  • main negative aspects;
  • determining factors in the onset of stress during the working period.

Data’s Results And Comments

The sample, consisting of 114 questionnaires, is represented for 58.8% by female workers and 41.2% by male workers (Figure 1).

Fig. 1 – Gender of the sample

2.6% of the sample represents people under 25, 14.9% represents a group of people from 25 to 35 years old, 26.3% represents a group from 36 to 45 years old, 39.5% represents a group from 46 to 55 years old and 16.7% represents a group from 56 to 67 years old (Figure 2).

Fig. 2 – Age range of the sample

34.2% of respondents work inside public companies, while the remaining 65.8% within private companies (Figure 3).

Fig. 3 – Public or private company where the sample works

51.8% of subjects live in the same city of the company they work for (Figure 4).

Fig. 4 – Residence compared to the company you work for

I asked participants how long took them to reach the company they work for; 40.4% said it took less than 10 minutes, 43.9% said they reached it in a time between 10 and 30 minutes, while the remaining 15.8% said it took more than 30 minutes (Figure 5).

Fig. 5 – Time taken to reach the workplace

I also asked respondents if smart-working activities were taking place in their companies before the pandemic: only 9.6% replied positively, while the remaining 90.4% implemented this type of work only for the emergency event (Figure 6).

Fig. 6 – Workers who operated in smart-working even before the pandemic event

28.9% of people have been working in smart mode for less than six months, 14% for more than six months and the remaining 57% for about a year (Figure 7).

Fig. 7 – Smart-working time

Taking into consideration the work station inside participants’ house, it is verified that 2.6% of workers did not have everything they needed to carry out their smart-working job, 35.1% said “partially” and the remaining 62.3% declared that they had everything they needed while working in smart mode (Figure 8).

Fig. 8 – Number of workers in possession of the appropriate equipment to carry out the smart-working activity

The company provided workers with adequate equipment only for 28.1% of respondents, 32.5% said “only in part” and the remaining 39.5% claimed they didn’t received it at all (Figure 9).

Fig. 9 – Supply of the instrumentation by the Company

With regard to health and safety training, 33.3% of respondents said they has received it, 20.2% said “only in part” and the remaining 46, 5% said they didn’t received it at all (Figure 10).

Fig. 10 – Workers who declare that they have received adequate training

The company provided guidelines to use software in 55.3% of cases, while the remaining 21.1% and 23.7% claimed to have received them respectively: in part and not at all (Figure 11).

Fig. 11 – Workers who declare that they have received instructions on the use of the software

Furthermore, 14% of respondents said the company they work for did not provide clear objectives, 24.6% stated that objectives were only partially defined and 61.4% declared that company’s objectives were clear (Figure 12).

Fig. 12 – Workers whose objectives and tasks have been clearly defined

With regard to the work activity, I asked workers if their job involved necessarily the use of paper or if the work process could be fully digitized; 27.2% said they couldn’t work without the use of paper, 39.5% said they could work in part without paper, while the remaining 33.3% said they could perform a fully digital job (Figure 13).

Fig. 13 – Workers who are only able to work digitally

Regarding the easy access of assistance in case of problems, 62.3% said they could easily contact support managers, while 21.9% said they were able to contact them only on certain occasions and 15.8% said they could’t contact them at all (Figure 14).

Fig. 14 – Workers who can easily contact assistance

60.5% of respondents stated that, during smart mode, working hours were no longer flexible, 17.5% said they were only partially more flexible and 21.9% said they had managed their working hours more flexibly (Figure 15).

Fig. 15 – Workers who have experienced flexible hours

As for the space inside workers’ home used for work, 43.9% said they have it, 18.4% replied that they only partially own it while 37.7% stated that they had no space (Figure 16).

Fig. 16 – Workers who have a space to be dedicated exclusively to work

71.9% of workers claimed to have full autonomy in carrying out their work, while 28.1% claimed to be partially self-sufficient; no answer regarding the condition of total dependency to other colleagues/superiors (Figure 17).

Fig. 17 – Workers who have autonomy in carrying out their work

I asked workers: “Does your work depend on tasks previously performed by others?”. 34.2% said their job doesn’t depend on previous works carried out by other colleagues, 12.3% said their job depends entirely on previous works and 53.5% declared their job depends only in part on the performance of other workers (Figure 18).

Fig. 18 – Workers whose work depends on the activities of other colleagues

Analyzing emotional/psychological aspects, it emerged that, for 25.4% of respondents, the performance of agile work influenced only partially the emotional state of workers and the relationships within their family, 43.9% did not suffer repercussions and 30.7% experienced changes in emotional aspects and relationships (Figure 19).

Fig. 19 – Workers who have found an influence in relationships and in the emotional state in the family unit

Regarding the working sphere after changes caused by the pandemic, 13.2% said this emergency has not affected their way of working, 21.1% said they have noticed an improvement, 34.2% claimed to have noticed a worsening and the remaining 31.6% claimed to have been influenced only in part (Figure 20).

Fig. 20 – Workers who have perceived an influence on their way of working

The current experience of applying a smart working mode was positive in 60.5% of cases and negative in 25.4% of cases, while 14% of respondents did not take a position (Figure 21).

Fig. 21 – Opinions about the sample’s smart-working experience

Following the end of pandemic, 32.5% of respondents stated that they would continue in carrying out their business in smart-working, while 56.1% said they would not want to continue in this direction; only 11.4% of workers didn’t take a position (Figure 22).

Fig. 22 – Workers who would consider doing their full-time jobs even after the pandemic

To the question “do you frequently feel unwell even if you do not have any pathologies?” only 7% answered positively, while 21.9% answered “more yes than no”, 33.3% said “more no than yes” and the remaining 37.7% said they never felt bad (Figure 23).

Fig. 23 – Workers who declare that they experience malaise

Furthermore, 16.7% of respondents declared that smart-working period made them more irritated and disgruntled, 22.8% said they were more irritated than satisfied, while 28.1% said, on the contrary, that they were more satisfied than disgruntled. The remaining 32.5% of workers declared that they didn’t feel irritated or displeased at all (Figure 24).

Fig. 24 – Workers who feel more irritated and discontented

When I asked about physical repercussions of smart-working, 24.6% said they has experienced physical illness, 48.2% said they hasn’t experienced that and 27.2% of respondents has accused physical pain only sometimes (Figure 25).

Fig. 25 – Workers who experienced physical repercussions

As regards emotional/psychological repercussions of smart-working, 11.4% declared that, after pandemic, they felt “worse”, 46.5% declared to feel “a little worse”, 31.6% declared to feel “indifferent”, 6.1% said they felt “a little better” and the remaining 4.4% declared to feel “much better” than before the emergency (Figure 26).

Fig. 26 – Opinions regarding the emotional / psychological state

It is possible to deduce how the “opportunity to continue the business despite the state of emergency” is the most appreciated criterion by the workers (67.5%). This is followed by the “possibility of managing and organizing time” (60.5%) and the “shorter time spent commuting from home to work” (57%).

In fact, 48.2% of respondents said they reside in a different place than the company they work for and 15.8% take more than 30 minutes to reach their workplace in normal times, while 43.9 % and 40.4% declare, respectively, to take a time between 10 and 30 minutes and less than 10 minutes.

Another relevant aspect was the “decrease in environmental impact thanks to a lower level of displacements” (52.6%), followed by “greater flexibility of working hours” (50%).

42.1% of respondents were pleased both the “reduction in costs” and “greater assistance to children / elderly” (31.6%). 24.6% of people declared that they had “fewer sources of disturbance”.

Only 3.5% of workers declared that they had not found any type of benefit during this smart-working period, while 4.5% responded by writing their own subjective opinion to the question posed.

An interesting information that must be considered is “more time to devote to private life”, considered as a positive aspect only by 15.8% of the interviewees (Figure 27).

Fig. 27 – Main POSITIVE aspects of smart-working

Taking into consideration the responses received in the negative aspects perceived by the workers, 65.8% of them declared that they experienced a “lower separation between private and working life” (Figure 28).

Fig. 28 – Main NEGATIVE aspects of smart-working

Contrary to how smart-working was initially conceived, this last figure turns out to be the first of the negative aspects highlighted by workers. The latter have faced an unfavourable working situation from the implementation of their own and within the home only, without the truly flexible nature that this way of working offers.

One of the consequences in the lower separation between private life and working life appears to be the “difficulty in pulling the plug”, confirmed by 61.4% of respondents, which in numerical terms is the second most popular answer.

This could derive from the fact that workers are always available or carrying out their business even during the weekend and late in the evening.

The third highlighted negative aspect is the problem of “isolation/ loneliness”, caused by less social contact with colleagues and relationships virtualization, which could be less satisfying and engaging.

40.4% consider as a negative aspect the “presence of sources of distraction at home”, due to the presence of children/elderly people, the carrying out of domestic activities, less concentration, etc.

This is followed by the “major organizational problems” with 33.3% and a “greater difficulty in managing time” with 15.8%.

Only 14% complain as a negative consequence of smart-working a lower level of privacy.

This is caused by the sudden digitization and identities virtualization, that forced workers to share private information and passwords.

10.5% say they experienced a cost increase, which could be determined by various factors, such as: a needing to change internet contracts, a lack of telephones, an increasing in bills, etc.

Only 5.3% of respondents say they are afraid of losing their job.

6.3% provided different answers, including: “lack of paper documents”, “work much more and feel not enough”, “greater difficulty in sharing the work done”, “too many hours a day”. 

10.5% declare that they didn’t find any kind of negative aspects in smart-working.

From the analysis of the main factors determining the development of stress, as a possible relationship between psychosocial risk factors and the stress experienced by workers, it was highlighted that three variables are significant for workers (Figure 29).

Fig. 29 – Main factors of STRESS

These variables are:

  • excessive workload;
  • inadequate reward (financial, social approval, career opportunities);
  • lack of support / communication from colleagues.

As the excessive workload increases, the risk of developing work-related stress increases.

The greater the support and communication from colleagues, the lower the risk of developing work-related stress.

The risk of increased stress increases as the reward perceived by workers increases both in economic terms, in terms of social approval, and in terms of career opportunities.

With “workload” we mean an excessive stimulation that can lead the subject to an experience of stress, mainly for two aspects: the amount of work to be done and worker’s fast pace.

The factor also indicates the degree of subject’s adequacy and organization’s resources to perform the assigned tasks.

With “support from colleagues” we mean the availability of people we work and collaborate with, the know-how and the mutual exchange of information and opinions.

With “adequate reward” we indicate the perceptions relating to the feeling of not being remunerated enough compared to the role covered, not being able to organize one’s work by deciding times and operating methods, the expectations of the organization towards it, direct responsibilities, what objectives should be.

Concerns about salary, career opportunities and social approval cause some discomfort among the workers interviewed (43.9%), while to a lesser extent, it’s worrying losing their job (13.2%).

Two risk factors that arouse concerns are excessive workload (70.2%) and difficulty in pulling the plug (61.4%).

As regards the risk profile of workers, it seems to be characterized by an excessive mental load of work for 70.2% of respondents; On the contrary, the level of autonomy possessed by workers is acceptable (71.9%), while the level of support from colleagues is equally negative: 44.7% affirmed that one of the stress development factors is a lack of support/ communication from colleagues.

Furthermore, objectives and tasks assigned by the company appear quite satisfactory (61.4%).

The separation between private life and working life (work-family conflict) is one of the main risks on stress’ onset for the smart-worker (65.8%).

On a sample of 67 women and 47 men, the analysis showed that 31.3% of women reported more physical repercussions from stress (back pain, migraine, dermatitis, insomnia, etc.) than men (14.9%).

Considering consequences of stress in the psycho / emotional area, it emerges from the data that women (44.8%) are more dissatisfied and irritated in carrying out their work in smart-working mode than men (31.9%).

It’s interesting to note that 60.5% of the entire sample defines the current work experience in smart-working as positive, but at the same time 56.1% say that would not evaluate the possibility of doing it full time. In particular, 66.7% of men evaluate the current agile work experience as positive, only 33.3% of these consider it negative. Similarly, women evaluate it positively for 73.6% of cases, while the remaining 26.4% define negatively this way of working.

Final Considerations

Smart-working is one of the many obligatory responses that forced, suddenly and without compromises, the arrival of the current pandemic. In fact, in this period of emergency, many workers became part of this huge work experiment, sometimes without clear rules of conduct. Companies whose workers are used to work from home, are more organized than companies that have been forced to start a remote working activity in a very short time, without a specific and prior organization.

The latter have found themselves and still find themselves facing atypical situations and working environments that do not conform to their needs.

In fact, the structural framework of smart-working is made up of three aspects: principles, levers and benefits as shown in the following image:

Fig. 30 – Smart-working’ structure

At the end of this health emergency, which made working experience a real “test” forced for most of the workers, it can be highlighted that smart-working cannot be applied to all workers and to all companies. That is because, in order to obtain positive effects on productivity and on worker satisfaction, it will be necessary to plan the characteristics of a certain job, of monitoring systems, of evaluation and enhancement of the work activity.

Therefore, the ultimate goal of agile work changes and becomes a prevention tool capable of containing the contagion from Covid-19.

In fact, due to the health emergency, we are witnessing the transition of the smart-working setting as it was conceived: as a tool for balance work and private life to a method of containment and prevention of Sars-CoV-2.

It should be remembered that Law no. 81/2017 says that: “the work is performed in part inside the company premises and partly outside without a fixed location, within the limits of maximum duration of daily and weekly working hours, deriving from the law and the collective bargaining “.

Contrary to what is said in the aforementioned law, since it is an emergency period, work performance is carried out exclusively at the worker’s home, because of the ministerial directives issued to protect workers and all citizens’ health.

Therefore, the “smart” part that characterizes the performance of this working method is lost.

So the drafting of a specific regulation o company agreement could be useful. Also the inclusion of a specific part dedicated to agile workers could help, involving the social partners in regulating worker’s behavior and the company towards him.

Workers who have the opportunity to carry out their work in an autonomous and diversified way are more motivated and more prepared to cope with stressful and pressure situations. The flexibility of hours and places of work promotes and increases employee satisfaction.

If the workload, equipment and workspaces are in line with the needs and requirements ability of a worker, the latter can be more productive and more confident in himself and for the company. If these characteristics are not in line, the worker is likely to feel overloaded; This can generate a state of stress and at the same time can make him lose motivation and create serious psycho/physical repercussions.

Smart-working must not be understood as a simple solution to complex problems; the availability of advanced technologies does not represent a guarantee of effectiveness, and the loss of place and time constraints does not result an automatic increase in the degree of freedom.

This research brings out the difficulties that many workers have found in this situation, also from a psycho-physical point of view, highlighting positives and negatives aspects of smart-working. The research highlights that complex problem need well thought out and well implemented solutions.

In this regard, 70.2% of the sample declares a load of excessive work, demonstrating that the loss of constraints related to the place and time of work is translated into an increase by the so-called “syndrome of the inability to unplug “, as well as a loss of the social dimension of work.

This means that a widespread and effective introduction of this way of working requires careful planning of organizational levers and compensation for the partial loss of sharing with colleagues. The “experiment” to which most individuals were subjected in this period of emergency can lead to the development of a more mature and more aware approach to smart-working. As can be seen in image 2, the stress response is a set of chain reactions that involves the nervous system, the hormonal system and the immune system of the individual subjected to stressors.

Fig. 31 – The stages of stress response

The survey allows to derive information on the extent of the work stress problem-correlated and on the perception of stress and psycho/physical stress-related conditions caused by smart-working during the pandemic period.

These informations could be helpful in raising awareness and making accountable future “intelligent” workers in carrying out their work optimally.

Also, if necessary, they could implement improvement and corrective actions. In this sense it is fundamental to discuss the information that emerged, with the need to interpret them with extreme caution. Indeed, the data collected are related to the condition of workers in a sudden and non-sudden pandemic situation budgeted, without agreement between the parties and without the necessary implementation measures; As a consequence it is impossible to draw precise conclusions even if it’s useful for preventive purposes.


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