COVID-19 leads to social isolation for the majority of the employees


In collaboration with the University of Leuven, StepStone has launched a new COVID-19 study among Belgian employees. Two findings are striking. Firstly, a staggering 78% report a decrease in social interaction at work during the crisis.

Secondly, changes in workload and autonomy are not at all uniform, leading to no less than five different types of job changes. This contradicts the view that the Covid-19 crisis dominantly increases the risk to burn-out for employees. The results instead suggest that the Covid-19 crisis mainly affects the motivation of workers, but in opposing ways: 25% get a more stimulating job, whereas 17% get to do a less stimulating one.


8 in 10 of Belgian respondents say their social contacts at work decreased – or even “decreased drastically” for more than half

With homeworking being and becoming the norm, social contacts have taken a hit, according to a clear majority of participants. A staggering 78% said social interaction at work has decreased during the corona crisis. The main consequence of the Covid-19 crisis is thus the risk to become lonely and socially isolated.

According to more than half (50,6%), social interaction even decreased drastically. For 16,7%, social contacts however remained the same – and for 5,3%, they even increased.


No uniform reactions to Covid-19 regarding work pressure or autonomy…

The evolution of work pressure and autonomy at work was much less uniform. When asked if pressure at work has increased, 41% of respondents answered positively. Under work pressure, we understand the extent to which one has to work under time pressure and at a high pace. Remarkably, however, 29,2% also said work pressure had decreased, and the same amount (29,3%) that the pressure felt on the job has remained the same – with or without COVID-19. This diversity in changes contradicts the popular view that the workload increased for most jobs due to the Covid-19 crisis.

A huge variety of outcomes was also observed regarding autonomy at work. This relates to the extent to which the employee can determine what, when and how s/he will do something at work. Here, a vast majority of respondents (63.7%) reports no change at all. For almost a quarter of the respondents (24,5%) their autonomy at work had decreased since the beginning of the crisis in March. For 11,6%, autonomy at work even increased.


… leading to no less than five different patterns of change

The media has often suggested that the changes in jobs due to Covid-19 would be rather univocal. Mainly an increase in stressful jobs has been advocated, which might lead to more burnout on the longer term. The results are quite different. Surprisingly, no less than five different reaction patterns emerge from the data, when we analyze the patterns of change regarding two aspects of jobs: work pressure and autonomy[1]:

  1. No change – 38%
  2. Lower opportunities for growth and development/less stimulating job – 25%
  3. Higher opportunities for growth and development/more stimulating job – 17%
  4. More relaxed job – 1,5%
  5. More stressful job – 9%

Three interesting conclusions can be made. Firstly, the content of the jobs did not change for about 40% of the employees. Their work pressure and autonomy were not at all affected by the Covid-19 crisis. Especially these respondents experienced high job security and reported the highest levels of job and life satisfaction.

Secondly, the popular assumption that most jobs would become more stressful is not at all confirmed in this study. Only 9% of the jobs of the respondents evolved towards a more stressful job (more work pressure and less autonomy). Especially respondents in the public sector reported an evolution towards a more stressful job. Respondents of this type are less satisfied with their job and life and are less satisfied with the way their employer handled the Corona-crisis. They also feel more insecure about their jobs and about the evolution of its quality.

Thirdly, the main effects of the Covid-19 crisis relate to opportunities for growth and development, rather than to an increase in stress. This means that the crisis mainly affected the motivation and energy of the respondents, and the capacity of their jobs to stimulate them to action and performance. About a quarter of the respondents report that their job evolved toward a less stimulating job (less autonomy and less workload). Such a pattern is mostly associated with passivity. This change is more dominant for self-employed and blue-collar workers. They more often had been temporarily unemployed. They also feel more insecure about the future of their job and blame the Corona-crisis as cause of their insecurity.

Opposite to this pattern are a group of 17% who report that their job offered more opportunities for growth and development since the Covid-19 crisis. Their job became more stimulating (increase of work workload and increase of autonomy). This pattern is associated with more energy, more activity and higher performance. Especially the higher-level white-collar workers and managers reported such a change. They also felt security about keeping their job in the future. 

Another potential influential factor towards an increase of stress during the corona crisis could obviously also be the homeschooling of children and added responsibilities. This study however only focused on professional life: changes in job characteristics and associated experiences like motivation and stress. Stress from the private sphere impacting work life was thus not taken into account, but no doubt played a factor during this period for a relevant amount of respondents.



This study was performed in collaboration with Prof. Dr. Hans De Witte and dra. Anahí Van Hootegem of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences of the KU Leuven (Research Group Work, Organisational & Personnel Psychology; WOPP-O2L).

The data were collected by means of an online survey at the peak of the second Corona wave in Belgium (28 July – 9 August 2020). In total 2845 respondents participated in this study (languages: 66% Dutch, 26% French and 8% English).

The sample was mainly highly educated (67 % diploma of higher education). About 64% had a higher-level white-collar job (branches like: science, health, education, administration, ICT), 27% had a lower level white collar job (e.g. administrative support), and 9% a blue-collar job. About 68% worked in the private sector, 20% in the public sector and 8% were self-employed (5% answered: ‘other’). 42% of the respondents were male and 58% were female, and the mean age was 45 years.

[1] Results of a cluster analysis. Social interaction was not taken into account, as a large majority of respondents reported that the social interaction in their job decreased. As a consequence, there was not enough variation regarding this aspect.

For specific inquiries, please contact:
Killian Cramers
+32 2 209 97 44 or +32 472 55 00 97