Staff survey looks at how Pitt employees are coping during pandemic


Earlier this year, David Lebel, an associate professor of Business Administration in the Katz Graduate School of Business, set out to look at how Pitt employees were adapting to new work environments brought on by the pandemic — either working from home or dealing with safety procedures at the office.


In October, Staff Council also hosted a workshop on “Staying Motivated During Challenging Times.” Find a recording of that event here.

“Employees were going through a lot. Pitt staff was going through a lot. So we wanted to take the time to look through what those changes are, and then look at what’s happening as a result of all these changes,” said Lebel, whose research focuses on proactive behaviors at work, including speaking up and taking initiative, and how negative emotions like fear and anger affect people at work.

Three separate surveys were sent out: In May, about how people were coping with the transition; in June, about employees’ engagement, emotions and motivation; and in July, about stress, burnout and whether they were learning new skills or helping others. He presented aggregated results of the study during an online event on Nov. 11, sponsored by Staff Council.

The surveys, which were done in collaboration with Human Resources, also looked at what factors influence how people are coping with these changes and how employees can improve their coping ability to adapt now and in the future.

Lebel emphasized at the beginning and the end of his presentation one of the key takeaways from the survey: “Everybody’s home situation, which is now their work situation, is different. And there’s a lot of different things that people are dealing with, a lot of different circumstances that people are facing, different challenges, and we have to be understanding and empathetic of those different situations.”

Overall, 2,944 Pitt employees from 43 different responsibility areas responded to the surveys and more than 1,700 took all three. Lebel and his team used some of their research funds to donate to local food banks for each person who responded. As a result, more than $13,000 was donated to 412 Food Rescue and the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

Some statistics about the respondents:

  • Average age: 44

  • Average time at Pitt: Four years working at Pitt

  • 75.7 percent were women, which mirrors the breakdown of Pitt staff.

  • 26.3 percent were supervisors.

  • 88.9 percent were working from home when the surveys launched.

Home situations varied widely:

  • 22 percent have school age kids at home.

  • 9 percent have infants or toddlers.

  • 8 percent had to deal with financial care or support to an elderly family member.

  • 5 percent are dealing with a family member with disability or illness.

Pitt employees also have had to learn several new skills to work at home through the pandemic. More than 90 percent said they learned Zoom; 72.6 percent, Microsoft Teams; 59 percent, setting up a virtual office; and 40 percent, Skype.

Lebel said they also found that participating in remote training, supervisor support chats or virtual staff retreats led to important outcomes in the July survey. Those who took advantage of these HR offerings were more likely to help other team members and more likely to take the time to develop new skills.

One simple question at the end of the July survey — What is the one thing you need to work better? — unleashed a torrent of comments. “We realized just how much people wanted to share and wanted to talk about the situation,” Lebel said. Some of the responses included:

  • Specific equipment, such as printers or a second monitor. Pitt “may not have the budget for all of these things but in some ways many staff reported being a little bit handicapped working from home,” Lebel said.

  • Help with health care, childcare and home schooling, along with flexible work hours.

  • Clear communication from current leadership and supervisors. “There is a lot of uncertainty out there, employees and staff recognize that, but they still wanted more frequent transparent updates from leadership.”

  • A dedicated, private workspace

For those working at home without a private space, Lebel said there are ways to trick your brain into work mode. For instance, if you have a desk in your bedroom, you could put up a tablecloth or even a scarf to separate that area from where your bed is.

“I work in the guest room at my house, and I have my own routine, where I open up all the windows,” he said. “I’m a big Star Wars fan, so I have a BB-8 in the corner. I say hi to BB-8 in the morning almost like meeting somebody at work and saying hi to them like you would in the morning. That’s my routine so that my brain knows I’m in work mode now.”

To balance work and home, he suggests letting co-workers know there are times they won’t be able to reach you, such as when your kids get off school and you need to help them. On the flip side, you can give your kids projects to do for 60 to 90 minutes and tell them you need to be really focused on work during that time.

He recommended two other sources for help with work-life balance at home:

  • A video by Sahar Yousef, faculty member at Haas School of Business at University of California–Berkeley, on the Neuroscience of Work-From-Home Productivity

  • The Centre for Transformative Work Design, run by one of Lebel’s research partner, Sharon Parker, a professor at Curtin University in Perth, Australia.

Emotions at work

Another big focus of the study, and something that Lebel focuses on, is emotions at work and staff well-being.

In the July survey, more than half said they were experiencing higher than normal stress, and it was mostly centered on work-related issues, such as will I get a promotion, and how am I going to know if I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing and have that evaluated effectively.

Lebel said they might be sending out a fourth survey to see where those stress levels are now, with COVID-19 cases on the rise, and how much people are feeling burnout.

The survey also found that low levels of career uncertainty led to people proactively seeking out skill-building activities. People who were focused on what they could do to help others in the job, instead of focusing on money or getting promoted, also were more likely to seek out new skills.

What supervisors can do

One area of the survey found that what supervisors are doing seems to have a big impact. “This is important because we’re not seeing our bosses like we normally do. … One thing that we found is supportive supervision is playing an important role in buffering against things like stress and burnout,” Lebel said.

Some suggestions:

  • Figure out ways to keep involved and keep tabs on employees, without micromanaging — asking how things are going, how are the hours working out, is there a way to redistribute some of the work.

  • Be a role model on successful ways of using technology and finding routines.

  • Maintain clear and honest communication. Lebel said many supervisors don’t want to give updates if they don’t have all of the information. “When we ask employees what they think, almost 100 percent of the time, staff say please update us, even if you don’t know anything. … The uncertainty if you don’t say anything at all is worse.”

  • Use multiple channels, like town halls, to spread information, because we’re all overwhelmed by emails.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at or 724-244-4042.


Have a story idea or news to share? Share it with the University Times.

Follow the University Times on Twitter and Facebook.