The aim of this study was to examine the association of psychosocial work stress and depressive symptoms in working parents during the COVID-19 pandemic on the one hand and to investigate whether this relationship was moderated by resilience on the other hand. Previous studies have found that work-related factors can be risk factors for parent’s mental health in general (14, 72). The current study provides a more differentiated insight into the nature of possible work-related risk factors as specifically WPC and ERI were investigated as indicators of psychosocial work stress. Beyond that, the potential protective role of individual resilience was examined.
Analyses revealed that higher WPC may be associated with more depressive symptoms in working parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. The potential of WPC as a risk factor is in line with previous findings from pre-pandemic studies (34, 36, 73). To our knowledge, no other study has investigated this association in a sample of working parents during the pandemic so far, but a few studies found results supporting the relevance of WPC regarding mental health: López and colleagues (74) found WPC to be a significant predictor of depression in the general population while Meyer and colleagues (18) identified WPC to be associated with exhaustion in a sample of employees. These findings support the assumption that especially during the pandemic, interference of work with private life needs to be considered as a risk factor for mental health. With the majority of parents in our study being required to work from home as a consequence of the pandemic, integrating work at home is likely to cause blurry boundaries between family and work context, requiring several role transitions within one day and increasing the risk for experiencing a conflict between the two domains during the pandemic (75).
Regarding the buffering role of resilience on the association of WPC and depressive symptoms, our hypothesis could not be confirmed. High resilience did not weaken the association of WPC and depressive symptoms. This could be due to different reasons. First, resilience can be seen as a process of adaptation (76, 77), therefore requiring time. Hence, our results might not have revealed a buffering effect of resilience on the association of WPC and depressive symptoms because the process of adaptation had still been ongoing. The COVID-19 pandemic represents a novel situation in which aspects such as the time it takes to adapt to the drastic changes working parents were confronted with, still need to be explored. Therefore, longitudinal studies with assessments at a later stage should further investigate the moderating role of resilience, which had not yet unfolded at the time of the first DREAMCORONA assessment. Second, this study only investigated resilience at an individual level. Resilience however can be context-dependent (78), and WPC clearly involves the context of one’s family and workplace. Therefore, other protective resilience factors like family resilience (79) or social support provided by supervisors, colleagues, spouses, or family (80, 81) might be more crucial in this context than individual resilience. Third, there are different conceptual models of resilience, elaborating the way resilience might affect mental health and well-being (82). In the compensatory model, resilience can exert its influence as a promoting factor, counteracting the exposure to risk by directly affecting the outcome (78, 82, 83). In the protective factor model, resilience is assumed to moderate the effect of a present risk on the outcome (78, 82, 83). The latter mechanism was investigated in the present study. However, as resilience can be context-dependent (78), WPC might represent a situation in which resilience rather relates to mental health as a promoting factor as suggested in the compensatory model, thereby counteracting the negative association of WPC and mental health. This would be in line with our findings as higher individual resilience was strongly associated with lower depressive symptoms when WPC was included in the regression model as well.
As hypothesized, ERI also showed a significant association with depressive symptoms in working parents during the pandemic, which is in line with results of pre-pandemic studies (39, 84, 85). Findings with reference to the pandemic are limited. However, Magnavita and colleagues (86) reported a similar association of the ERI ratio with depressive symptoms in a sample of employees. As elaborated above, according to the ERI model (38), effort refers to meeting obligations and demands while rewards can either be received as financial rewards (e.g., salary), status-related rewards (e.g., career promotion or job security), or social-emotional reward (e.g., esteem or recognition). In the context of the pandemic, adaptation to changes in demands and obligations at work due to political restrictions might be perceived as high effort spent on work (e.g., demands regarding sudden adjustments to working from home if no adequate infrastructure was in place yet). Employees were required to adapt to new technologies and ways to collaborate and were forced to limit personal contact with co-workers. At the same time receiving a reward might have been scarce: The economic crisis might threaten job security or promotion while limited personal contact and face-to-face interaction might diminish possibilities to receive acknowledgment of one’s work by co-workers or supervisors (2, 4, 87).
Regarding the buffering effect of individual resilience on the association of ERI and depressive symptoms, a significant moderation was found. The simple slope analysis illustrates the effect (Fig. 2), suggesting that in working mothers and fathers with greater individual resilience the negative association of ERI and depressive symptoms might be weaker than in those parents with lower individual resilience. However, the effect was only marginally significant, and the bias corrected and accelerated bootstrap confidence interval included zero, suggesting non-significance. Therefore, this result needs to be interpreted with caution. So far, no study has investigated the buffering effect of resilience on the relationship of ERI and depressive symptoms, neither before nor after the outbreak of the pandemic. However, Havnen and colleagues (50) reported that resilience moderated the effect of exposure to perceived stress on depressive symptoms during the COVID-19 pandemic, which supports the tendency of our findings.
Apart from the presence of psychosocial work stress in parents during the pandemic, the observed prevalence of depressive symptoms in our sample raises concerns. Overall, the sample showed a high prevalence of EPDS scores indicating minor or major depression (20.8%). This is in line with other studies conducted during the pandemic, which indicated both an elevation in maternal depression (15) as well as an elevation in self-reported depressive symptoms in a sample of the general population (88). Moreover, increased clinically significant levels of mental distress (17) and a lower well-being of parents, especially of parents living with younger children and of women were reported (89). The latter finding supports the observed gender differences regarding depressive symptoms in our study as mothers had a higher mean of depressive symptoms compared to fathers. This difference is common in data independent of the pandemic situation, as women have a higher risk of suffering from depression in their lifetime (90). Hence, it is not surprising that gender was a significant confounder in all regression analyses. Along with gender differences regarding depressive symptoms, we also found significant gender differences regarding resilience, with fathers showing greater resilience compared to mothers. This is in line with the finding that greater resilience showed a strong negative association with depressive symptoms. No gender differences were found for indicators of psychosocial work stress.
Regarding the other control variables LHD and working hours per week, only the latter was a significant confounder in the final model investigating the association of ERI and depressive symptoms. This result indicates that working more hours was related to less depressive symptoms which is in line with findings of Witteveen and Velthorst (91). They reported that a sudden decreased workload during the pandemic was associated with greater feelings of depression as compared to workers whose workload remained stable (91). This effect could be explained by a decrease of workload being accompanied by financial strains or short-time work, thereby eliciting stress, which in turn might affect feelings of depression. Furthermore, being forced to work less hours might threaten one’s daily structure or routine, which could normally benefit mental health (92). However, as our cross-sectional design does not allow conclusions regarding causality, the observed association might as well suggest that better mental health enables employees to work longer hours.
Strengths and limitations
To the best of our knowledge, this study was the first to examine the association of specific psychosocial work factors and depressive symptoms in working parents during the COVID-19 pandemic and to investigate the buffering effect of individual resilience on this association. This was possible both for mothers and fathers. In addition, participants had at least one young child aged 0 to 34 months offering valuable insights into the mental health of parents of young children. The DREAMCORONA study is part of a prospective longitudinal cohort study (53) and therefore allows to build on the present findings in future assessments. As the dynamic of the pandemic required a quick response to grasp the ongoing processes during the pandemic, cross-sectional data of the first assessment were analysed as a start in order to gain a first understanding. As another major strength, our study contributes to a more comprehensive picture of potential factors promoting mental health. This is particularly valuable considering the concept of positive psychology and the importance of strengthening psychological resources in order to prevent mental disorders in the first place (93, 94).
At the same time, there are some limitations to be considered when interpreting the present results. First, the characteristics of the study sample prevent us from transferring the results to working parents in general. Our sample consisted of highly educated mothers and fathers, which is not representative for the general population. However, this is not unusual for epidemiological studies (95) and there was no significant association of parental education with the outcome, i.e., depressive symptoms, in our sample. Moreover, almost all participants were in a permanent relationship, and most of them had only one child. Therefore, psychosocial work stress, resilience, and depressive symptoms might be different in single parents or those with more children. Second, the data of the present sample of the DREAMCORONA study were derived from a cross-sectional assessment and did not include a pre-pandemic baseline. Therefore, no causal interpretations can be made whether any values of our research variables have increased or decreased compared to the time prior to the outbreak. However, pre-pandemic depression prevalences in different subsamples from the general DREAM study give reason to assume that depressive symptoms are elevated during the pandemic (96–98). Third, as the pandemic is a highly dynamic process with permanent changes regarding political restrictions and work, social, and family life, the findings of the present study explicitly refer to early stages of the pandemic, assessed from May to June 2020. Fourth, data were based on self-report only and therefore might be susceptible to biases such as social desirability. However, we only used validated instruments, which are widely used in research.
Implications and future research
Our findings have two major implications. First, as both ERI and WPC were associated with poorer mental health, measures are needed to decrease psychosocial work stress. Second, given the potential of individual resilience to buffer the association of psychosocial work stress and depressive symptoms on the one hand and to directly benefit mental health on the other hand, resilience needs to be fostered. Decreasing psychosocial work stress could be achieved by fostering family-friendly organizational conditions (e.g., supportive organizational climate, flexitime, or other arrangements to autonomously manage work demands), which have been shown to diminish WPC (99). Apart from structural measures, individuals themselves should be supported to cope with WPC, e.g., through enhancing to manage boundaries between work and family as low boundary management has been shown to be associated with higher WPC (100). Identifying ways to increase rewards at work during the pandemic could reduce the imbalance of effort and reward. A possible measure which might enhance rewards like job security or recognition could be establishing an adjusted organizational communication, which transmits transparency about the pandemic dynamic, actively involves the employees, and strengthens a feeling of belonging (101). Moreover, receiving higher rewards might be a protective factor itself, as higher compared to lower perceived reward is associated with a lower risk for depression (85). In order to foster resilience, health insurances as well as employers should provide targeted resilience trainings as interventions have been proven to effectively increase resilience both in general and in contexts of occupational stress (102–104). Recalling the role of parents’ mental health in family stress models, reducing psychosocial work stress, and strengthening resilience appears even more important in order to prevent the negative effects of poor mental health of parents on both parenting and children’s well-being.
Regarding future research, studies should investigate the potential protective role of resilience at a later stage of the pandemic to examine whether its buffering effect unfolds more strikingly after a longer period of adjustment. In addition, longitudinal studies are needed to draw conclusions regarding the predictive value of WPC, ERI, and resilience on depressive symptoms in working parents. Beyond that, the investigation of potential protective factors buffering the effect of psychosocial work stress should be broadened, particularly with regard to other potential resilience factors, which might be associated with WPC (e.g., family resilience, social support at home or at work). In addition, positive effects of restrictions due to the pandemic (e.g., no commuting to work, spouses being able to mutually support each other at home) should be investigated.