Results of faculty/staff 'Return to Work' survey to inform University strategies

June 11, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Results from the faculty and staff Return to Work survey distributed on May 20 have been received and reviewed by University leaders as they plan for a future phased return to the workplace following stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was sent to all University employees with a goal of providing Penn State leaders with critical feedback on the possible return to on-site work – with a majority of respondents indicating willingness to take a variety of precautions to mitigate spread of the virus.

In total, 16,057 individuals responded to the survey out of the 27,699 faculty and staff at Penn State, resulting in a response rate of 58%. Eighty-seven percent of respondents were full-time employees and 13% were part time. The survey, sent out from Human Resources, was administered anonymously, and no responses can be linked to individuals. University Park employees accounted for 70% of all responses.

“The unusually high response rate is reflective of the importance of the issue,” said Lorraine Goffe, vice president for Human Resources and co-chair of Penn State’s Return to Work Committee.

“There are some questions and, not surprisingly, some anxiety about returning to work sites – and we understand that emotion and want to be able to support employees in the best ways we know how — by offering resources when needed and by communicating often,” Goffe said. “This survey was one way for leadership to hear our employees and to better understand what may be of concern.”

Employees who took the survey are largely supportive of the possible virus mitigation measures, such as testing, contact tracing, self-isolation/quarantine, hygiene protocols and social distancing outlined for return to work. The mitigation strategy most often considered essential by respondents, regardless of their role at Penn State, was encouraging people to stay home if they felt ill. In addition, most respondents reported feeling worried about the virus to some extent, especially the potential impact it could have on family and friends (88%) and the surrounding community (89%), than of themselves personally (75%).

A majority of respondents said they have been directly impacted by COVID-19 in some way – in areas such as income, child care and family members. In the areas of psychological well-being and stress, most respondents were split between negative and neutral responses; however, a slight majority reported feeling “worse” or “much worse” since the COVID-19 pandemic was reported in the United States. Forty-five percent of those who responded report declines in their ability to do their work, with the biggest impacts on faculty (60%) and technical service employees (54%). Thirty-eight percent of all respondents said they have not been directly impacted by COVID-19.

The large majority of employees that responded said they have already been practicing mitigation efforts, such as avoiding social gatherings; spending less time in-person with friends; washing their hands; and wearing masks in public. While these strategies are expected to continue in the workplace, 74% of employees believe their workspaces need some changes to be able to support social distancing.

Overall, nearly two-thirds (63%) of employees self-assessed their COVID-19 risk as “moderate to high.” Faculty self-assessed the highest risk level (66% moderate/high risk); technical service workers self-assessed the lowest risk levels (59% no/limited risk); women felt themselves at higher risk than men; and underrepresented populations felt at higher risk than whites/Caucasians.

The survey included two questions for faculty only. Fourteen percent of all faculty respondents reported being unwilling to return to face-to-face teaching under any circumstances and 26% were unwilling to return to face-to-face office hours. More than half of faculty said they would feel comfortable returning to face-to-face teaching and office hours if precautions, such as face masks, social distancing and sanitization strategies, are taken.

“I am highly encouraged by the amount and depth of information we received from the University community. These findings will be essential in the implementation of safety and mitigation measures during the future phased return process,” Goffe said. “We are in the midst of mapping out exactly what going back to work may look like for Penn Staters. It is complex with an enormous amount of related details, needs and protocols. We will use these answers to help us determine possible alternatives, any needed policy changes, or increased measures to be put in place. Returning to the workplace is going to require everyone’s cooperation and a large measure of personal responsibility, as we are all in this together.”

Results from the student survey – “Potential Return to Campus” – also are under review by leadership. The survey was distributed to 16,864 undergraduate and graduate students and a story on the results can be found here.

With ongoing public health and safety recommendations and key information gained from the survey results, University leadership continues to develop return-to-work strategies with employee, student and community safety as top priorities. More information on the phased return to campus will be shared with the University community by June 15. For the latest information on Penn State's response to the coronavirus, go to https://virusinfo.psu.edu/.

Last Updated June 12, 2020