Work, employment and COVID-19: What are experts concerned about?

  • Over 1,100 experts have shared with us their concerns about COVID-19 and COVID-impacted areas in the immediate and longer term future.
  • This report outlines concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on work and employment.
  • Experts are concerned that unemployment will rise as businesses lay off staff or close down. Some groups are likely to be more affected by lay-offs and may struggle to find another job.
  • Experts are also concerned about the impact of working from home on productivity and health.
  • Finally there are concerns about the labour market. Some industries in the UK, such as agriculture, may have too few workers to function in the long-term.
  • You can find all our horizon scanning work on COVID-19 here.

Our survey of over 1,100 experts asked them what their most important concerns were in the short (next 3 months), medium (next 3 to 9 months) and long-term (beyond the next 9 months) relating to the COVID-19 outbreak. Their responses were analysed and synthesised. This synthesis comes from survey responses submitted between 3 and 30 April. Experts raised 220 concerns relating to work and employment. Below are the areas of concerns that experts have relating in this area.

Unemployment and lack of income

Experts raised over 100 concerns about unemployment and lack of income. Experts are concerned in the short and medium-term that unemployment will rise as businesses lay off staff or close down. Experts note that some groups are likely to be more affected by lay-offs and may struggle to find another job. These include those with less experience, those with fewer qualifications and those working in more vulnerable industries. They are concerned that there could be a rise in long-term unemployment (being jobless for over 27 weeks). Some experts are also concerned that the UK will experience structural unemployment. This is where there are jobs available but there is a lack of people with the skills to do those jobs. In the long-term, they suggest that the Government will need to offer support for retraining unemployed people to address this issue.

In the short and medium-term, experts are concerned about people who cannot work but are not considered officially unemployed. These include people who work in the gig economy and those on zero hours contracts. They express concerns that some people may not be able to earn but may also be unable to access benefits. Other concerns include that workers who do not have sick pay (for example, because they are self-employed) may continue to work when they have symptoms of COVID-19 because they need the income. This increases the risk of the virus spreading to other people in the community.

In the short and medium-term, experts are concerned about the delays in receiving the first payments for new recipients of Universal Credit. They note that many people’s personal finances are already in a precarious situation. They express concerns about people taking out risky personal loans. They note that some people may default on payments to lenders or services. This would cause knock-on effects to businesses, which might be forced to close if many people default at the same time. In the long-term, many experts are concerned that the current benefit system may not be able to deal with sudden rises or fluctuations in unemployment. They suggest that the Government may need to consider ways to offer benefits that kick-in immediately to maintain people’s income if they suddenly stop earning for any reason.

Example of a typical short-term concern in this area: Ability and preparedness of Jobcentre Plus to scale up to provide appropriate employment support; risks of long-term unemployment; impacts on youth and disadvantaged communities.

Productivity and continuation of work

Experts raised over 50 concerns about productivity and continuation of work. In the short and medium-term, experts are concerned that there is likely to be a drop in work productivity. They note that many people are working from home for the first time. Others are working while caring for children or other loved-ones. This is likely to reduce their productivity. They also suggest that stress and anxiety caused by lockdown will reduce people’s productivity. Experts are concerned this could compound the UK’s ‘productivity crisis’ (economic output per hour has been dropping since 2005). This would make the UK a less desirable place to open new businesses or invest in. Experts suggest that UK workers will need support to reverse the worsening productivity crisis.

Some experts are concerned that widespread home working could have long-term health impacts. For example, people working from home without proper equipment could develop conditions such as repetitive strain injury. This could cause a strain to the health service and also to businesses if they receive more workplace injury claims. Experts suggest that more needs to be done to support good home working practices should further outbreaks happen in the future.

In the medium and long-term, experts raise concerns about people who have been furloughed returning to work. They note that it will be a difficult transition for some people to return to their normal work pattern after being without work for a long period. Experts also suggest that people’s motivation and mental health could be affected if employers expect them to switch back to ‘normal’ work without support. Some experts suggest that there is an opportunity to rethink the way many jobs are carried out. For example, they note that some workers may have found that they prefer working from home or having flexible hours. They suggest that businesses should be encouraged to support workers returning to work and consider their preferences for how they work in the future.

Example of a typical long-term concern in this area: Developing and adapting risk frameworks for organisations, in order to ensure workers feel supported and safe in their jobs.

Labour market

Experts raised nearly 50 concerns about the labour market in the short, medium and long-term. In the short-term, they suggest that some industries in the UK will have too few workers to function. For example, they note that UK agriculture is reliant on seasonal migrant workers. With international travel restrictions, they suggest that these industries will not have access to the workers they need. This could cause viable businesses to close, causing supply issues. For example, there could be food shortages if not enough workers are available to harvest crops. Experts note that if the COVID-19 outbreak continues over the long-term, business may have to deal with more sick leave than they usually account for. This could mean they require more short-term contract workers to fill the gaps. A small number of experts are concerned that if the death rate is higher than expected, there could be a lack of working-age people in the UK to take up key jobs. They are concerned that there is no contingency plan for ensuring essential services continue with a reduced working population.

Example of a typical medium-term concern in this area: Ensuring that support is available to help individuals and employers to have the right staff, with the right skills in the right jobs so that business can start to rebuild our economy and get people back to work as quickly as possible.


You can read the methodology of this work here. All researchers who contributed to this survey are listed under Acknowledgements.

You can find rapid response content from POST on COVID-19 here.

You can find more content on COVID-19 from the Commons and Lords Libraries here.