UW Graduate School

The pandemic changed our daily routines. Here’s how that’s impacting mental health, productivity and the environment

Photo: University of Washington

Few people think about the impact their daily routine has on themselves, or even the planet. But the small actions — from what you eat for breakfast to how you commute to work — are having an effect. 

Urban Design and Planning doctoral student Xiao Shi has long been interested in the small and large impacts of people’s daily routines. That’s why when the COVID-19 pandemic caused a huge disruption in the routines of people and cities, Shi and a team of fellow researchers from the UW and Puget Sound Regional Council began studying the outcomes on mental health, productivity and the environment. 

“You don’t even notice it,” she said, of people’s daily routines. “It’s something that’s going on unconsciously for a lot of people, but it will have a great impact on physical and mental well-being.”

Shi and the team conducted a survey back in May of 2020 of more than 4,000 people in Washington state, to see how people’s productivity and mental health were faring several weeks into quarantine. They found that more than half of people reported negative mental health outcomes during this time, from depression to fear to feelings of tension.

The amount of time people reported being bothered by these feelings over a two week period. Source

But more than half of people reported positive effects when it came to their productivity. Of the people who reported they were working from home, 60 percent said their productivity stayed the same or increased, citing reasons of having a shorter commute or less interference from coworkers. Still, there were differences based on living situations. People living alone or with a partner reported greater productivity than people living with children.

People also reported getting more sleep than before the pandemic, an increase in screen time, and a decrease in physical activity.

Reasons people listed for being more or less productive during quarantine. Source

Part of the reason for measuring these effects is to see what issues or inequities need to be addressed from the changes caused by the pandemic, as well as consider whether at least some large-scale work-from-home arrangements might be beneficial to people and cities in the future.

“We wanted to see what are the factors that influence people’s productivity while working from home and if there’s any part of the population who can keep working from home in the long run,” Shi said. “Not commuting to work not only has health benefits during COVID-19, it also reduces the environmental burden that we have by reducing congestion and carbon emissions, which helps with mitigating climate change.”

Xiao Shi

For example, a city government might decide that employees only need to be in the office two to three times per week, alternating days with others in a coordinated way so that the amount of commuters would be reduced while also allowing people to meet with their respective teams at work.

This would alter what Shi calls the “urban rhythm,” or the amount of individual actions which add up in a day to cause unintended impacts on an ecosystem, like traffic congestion. 

Shi has long been interested in how people interact with cities, from when she earned a biology degree as an undergraduate at Tsinghua University in China, to then earning her master’s in urban planning and landscape architecture at Cornell University. 

But as Shi spent longer time in the discipline, she found that there was a lot the profession still didn’t know about the impacts of their practices. After all, urban design is a fairly young discipline compared to subjects like physics or philosophy. 

That’s why Shi decided to pursue a doctorate, so that she could research and understand some of the greater impacts this work could have, hopefully sharing this knowledge to make it more impactful for others along the way.  

Shi’s team is currently conducting the second round of the survey, to see what might have changed after people settled into quarantine and got used to their schedules. They’ll produce a journal article as well as share their findings with different stakeholders around the city. 

The research team plans on making the data available to other researchers at UW who also might want to use it to come up with their own research questions about the impact of the pandemic, of which there are certainly many.

By Kate Stringer, UW Graduate School
Published Nov. 6, 2020