ISSN: 2640-7590
Journal of Vaccines and Immunology
Research Article       Open Access      Peer-Reviewed

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on work capacities of researchers: An overlooked problem

Ferdinando D’Amico1,2, Didier Mainard3, Cedric Baumann4 and Laurent Peyrin-Biroulet2*

1Department of Biomedical Sciences, Humanitas University, Pieve Emanuele, Milan, Italy
2Department of Gastroenterology and Inserm NGERE U1256, University Hospital of Nancy, University of Lorraine, Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, France
3CHRU, Hôpital Central, 29, avenue du Maréchal de Lattre-de-Tassigny, 54000 Nancy, France
4Methodology, Data Management and Statistic Unit, MPI Department, University Hospital of Nancy, Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, France
*Corresponding author: Laurent Peyrin-Biroulet, MD, PhD, Professor, Inserm NGERE and Department of Gastroenterology, Nancy University Hospital, University of Lorraine, 1 Allée du Morvan, 54511 Vandoeuvre-lès-Nancy, France, Tel: (+33) 383153661; Fax: (+33) 383153633; E-mail: peyrinbiroulet@gmail.com
Received: 12 May, 2021 | Accepted: 20 May, 2021 | Published: 21 May, 2021
Keywords: COVID-19; Research; Teaching; Work from home

Cite this as

: D’Amico F, Mainard D, Baumann C, Biroulet LP (2021) Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on work capacities of researchers: An overlooked problem. J Vaccines Immunol 7(1): 014-019. DOI: 10.17352/jvi.000040

Background: The new coronavirus pandemic has substantially changed research and teaching activities. The aim of our survey was to investigate the impact of the current health emergency on teaching and research activities, focusing on the perspectives of research unit members.

Methods: This was an anonymous web-survey conducted between April 29 and May 6, 2020. All members of the center of Biology, Medicine, and Health sciences (BMS) of the Lorraine University were invited to participate in this survey through collective e-mails.

Results: Eighty-three subjects participated in our survey. Research activities were totally (86.8%) or partially (75.9%) stopped in most centers and most of respondents were working from home occasionally (15.7%) or every day (78.3%). The main activity during lockdown was writing original articles from already collected data (39.8%). More than a third of the respondents (39.7%) reported remarkable reduction in their work. Similarly, most of conferences (82%) and internships (73.3%) were canceled and graduation of students were postponed in 58.8% of cases.

Conclusions: Work from home was a valid alternative to workplace activities during the pandemic. Further studies are needed to evaluate the long-term effects of this new approach on quality of research and teaching.

Introduction

Since December 2019, the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) outbreak has globally disrupted lives and habits of all people in a few months [1,2]. Infection can be easily transmitted through contact, aerosol, or droplet, and fecal-oral transmission cannot be excluded [3,4]. Social distancing measures were adopted to prevent its spread, including suspension of all non-essential work activities and non-urgent movement [5,6]. Research and university staff were not excluded from these recommendations [7,8]. As of May 1, 2020 in the “Grand Est” region of France including Alsace, Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine, 3824 patients were hospitalized of which 517 in intensive care unit and 2915 people had died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic9. At the time of writing, the lockdown was set in the Lorraine region by the government authorities according to a national Business Continuity Plan (BCP) [10]. To limit the risk of contagion, most researchers were working from home and all face-to-face teaching activities were interrupted and replaced by online teaching. A significant reduction in research time was reported, leading to a lower number of publications, particularly among female researchers [11–14]. The center of Biology, Medicine, and Health sciences (BMS) of the Lorraine University initiated an anonymous online survey to investigate the impact of the current health emergency on teaching and research activities. We focused on the perspectives of research unit members in order to assess how the researchers’ work changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Methods

A 35-question anonymous survey was conducted between April 29 and May 6, 2020. All 150 members of the BMS center of the Lorraine University (research directors, researchers, full professors, associate professors, PhD students, post PhDs, research engineers, project engineers, assistant engineers, technicians, and technical assistants) were invited to participate in this survey through collective e-mails. Patients were not involved in this survey. The questionnaire was initially developed in French and was later translated into English by native English speakers. The questionnaire was mainly based on multiple-choice questions about organizational information during the pandemic and any changes to research and teaching activities. In addition, there were questions about the perspectives of the research unit members. Participants were asked to numerically evaluate from 1 to 10 (where 1 indicated the most negative value and 10 the most positive value) the impact of the health crisis on different aspects of their work (e.g. research activity, scientific productivity, home efficiency, and morale). Results from 1 to 4.9 were graded of little importance, from 5 to 7.9 of moderate importance, and those > 8 of significant importance.

Results

Eighty-three people (55.3%) joined our survey (Table 1). Mean age of participants was 39.2 years (± 10.5) and most of them were married with children (37.4%). The most represented subjects were PhD students (21/83, 25.4%) and associate professors (19/83, 23%). Four people (4.8%) reported being tested for coronavirus and none were positive. The BCP was applied by most centers (71/83, 85.5%) and reorganization of the activities was carried out in about three quarters of cases (62/83, 74.7%). Research and administrative activities were totally (86.8%) or partially (75.9%) stopped in most centers. Interestingly, three quarters of respondents were not attending the research unit during the lockdown (63/83, 75.9%) and most of them were working from home occasionally (13/83, 15.7%) or every day (65/83, 78.3%). Conversely, about a quarter of people (24.1%) were attending research units and in most cases (90%) these activities were related to BCP. Social distancing measures at workplace were always respected by about two thirds of respondents (54/83, 65.1%). The main activity during lockdown was writing original articles from already collected data (33/83, 39.8%). A relevant percentage of people reported slight (17/83, 20.5%), moderate (12/83, 14.5%), or remarkable (33/83, 39.7%) reduction in their work. In most cases ongoing research protocols were completely (53/83, 63.9%) or partially (7/83, 20.5%) stopped, while in the few centers that maintained protocols active (5/83, 6%) the main reasons for studies’ continuation were management of laboratory animals (10), priority protocols (4), and protocols almost completed at the start of the health crisis (4). Importantly, a small percentage of respondents (11/83, 13.2%) started working on coronavirus and only a few subjects (12/83, 14.5%) were interested in projects dedicated to COVID-19. As for teaching activity, lockdown prevented many subjects (29/47, 61.7%) from participating in university graduation committees, and graduation of students were postponed in over half of cases (20/34, 58.8%). Six people were members of a university graduation committee by videoconference and this approach was considered of very poor (2/6, 33.3%) or less good (2/6, 33.3%) quality compared to traditional face-to-face discussion. Furthermore, most of conferences (41/50, 82%) and internships (33/45, 73.3%) were canceled. The main concerns of the researchers were related to delay in progress of ongoing studies (65/83, 78.3%) and impossibility of generating new results (56/83, 67.5%). Working from home negatively affected researchers’ efficiency in a moderate way (5.6 ± 2.23), while little importance was attributed to difficulties of communicating remotely with colleagues (2.51 ± 2.0) or to the impact of health crisis on research activity (3.77 ± 2.0), scientific productivity (4.21 ± 2.35), teaching activity (4.04 ± 2.31), or one’s morale (4.55 ± 2.0). On average, the health crisis was not perceived as an opportunity for professional activity (4.10 ± 2.78) and half of subjects (45/83, 54.2%) reported that they wanted to change some aspects of job, working more from home (32/83, 38.6 %), seeing work problems with another perspective (26/83, 31.3%), and creating more relationships with colleagues (11/83, 13.2%).

Discussion

This survey evaluated the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on research and teaching activities. Most of the activities have been stopped and many researchers are working from home, negatively impacting their efficiency. This is probably due to the lack of motivation and dedicated workplaces, and the distractions that can affect home working (e.g. the presence family members). Unfortunately, it is not known how long the health emergency will last and when it will be possible to return to the usual work routine. What is certain is that the pandemic has led to a rapid change in the way of working in the field of research and university. In this context, some precautions could help increasing work productivity: to schedule the work, to behave in the same way as when you go to the research unit, to exercise, and to keep in touch with colleagues [15]. Teaching activity was greatly influenced by the emergency as all face-to-face activities were prohibited. Most of the conferences and internships were canceled, while the students’ graduations were postponed or discussed by teleconference with questionable results. Our data are confirmed by other studies which report that approximately 80% of clinical trials were stopped or interrupted during the pandemic, while most research activities were suspended [16]. Conversely, the number of scientific publications was not reduced, supporting alternative working approaches [16,17]. The main limitation of our survey is the lack of data from research units from other countries. However, it is important to underline that the restrictions imposed in France are similar to those of many other countries in the world and therefore it is likely that colleagues from other countries are facing the same type of problems, suggesting that our data may be representative and reproducible. The workplace activity is not replaceable, but until the lockdown is overcome and suitable social distancing measures will be adopted in the workplace together with the availability of personal protective equipment for all workers, work from home will be a valid alternative. During the pandemic, the number of scientific publications significantly increased [11,18]. This could be explained by the limitations imposed by home working, which prompted researchers to focus primarily on writing papers rather than conducting science. On the other hand, the impact of home working on teaching activities is not yet known. An important challenge for the resumption of didactic activities will be not only the need to guarantee individual protective aids for all students and teachers, but also to modify and to implement teaching methods with new e-learning techniques. Finally, in the coming months it will have to be established whether home working represents only a temporary and occasional remedy to a situation of need or if it is an additional option for the world of research.

Conclusion

The researchers’ work underwent major changes during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic due to the suspension of many activities and the implementation of smart working. Surprisingly, the pandemic had scarcely affected the productivity of the research unit members, underlining how smart working could be a valid alternative to workplace activities.

Author’s contribution

LPB conceived the study. DM, and CB developed the survey questionnaire. FD wrote the first draft and created the table. LPB critically reviewed the content of the paper. All authors discussed the results and contributed to the final manuscript.

Conflict of interest

F D’Amico declares no conflict of interest. D Mainard declares no conflict of interest. C Baumann declares no conflict of interest. L Peyrin-Biroulet has served as a speaker, consultant and advisory board member for Merck, Abbvie, Janssen, Genentech, Mitsubishi, Ferring, Norgine, Tillots, Vifor, Hospira/Pfizer, Celltrion, Takeda, Biogaran, Boerhinger-Ingelheim, Lilly, HAC- Pharma, Index Pharmaceuticals, Amgen, Sandoz, For- ward Pharma GmbH, Celgene, Biogen, Lycera, Samsung Bioepis, Theravance.

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