The Swiss federal government put the country in lockdown from 16 March to 19 June 2020 in order to stem the rapid increase in COVID-19 infection rates. Three EPFL studies examined how Swiss residents experienced the lockdown in terms of psychological stress and their priorities for housing. The findings show that 60% of respondents changed their definition of the ideal home, and that women and students suffered the most psychologically – indicating that policymakers should pay closer attention to the needs of these groups should lockdowns be required in the future.
According to the first study, appearing in Frontiers in Psychology, Switzerland’s lockdown was hardest for students, women who found themselves juggling work-from-home demands with household tasks, and people living alone. Among the people surveyed, the increase in stress levels was 42% higher among women than men, and 29% higher among students than the actively employed, unemployed and retired. These findings are consistent with those from neighboring countries, even though the lockdowns in France and Germany were more severe.
No difference between urban and rural areas
The study also revealed the important role that type of housing played during this period. Respondents who lived in a home with a yard, or with a combination of outdoor spaces like a yard and balcony, had a 23% lower in increase in stress levels. “This shows that inequality is still an issue when it comes to housing, and that this inequality is having a real, negative impact on people’s well-being,” says Livia Fritz, a postdoc at EPFL’s Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems Laboratory (HERUS) and one of the study’s authors, along with Ralph Hansmann, an environmental systems scientist at ETH Zurich. “However, we were surprised to see that there was no major difference in the increase in stress levels between urban and rural areas during the first wave.”
In addition to personal circumstances and living conditions, another factor affecting respondents’ experience was the kind of activity they engaged in while locked down. Some activities proved to be more effective in attenuating psychological strain. Those who got regular exercise or who cooked more, for instance, reported feeling less stress than those who spent most of their time watching TV or on social media.
Saturated living areas
The second study, appearing in Revue des politiques sociales and familiales, looked at the “plasticity” of housing, or to what extent respondents were able to adapt their living areas to their locked-down lifestyles. Here the EPFL scientists identified six categories of people based on responses from the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Valais. At one extreme were the “exhausted,” generally people under 44 who worked from home during the lockdown and have small children. These individuals had to make the most adjustments to their homes, as living in a small space made it even harder to manage their jobs and family constraints. They reported struggling with a large number of tasks and felt their living areas had become “saturated.” This corroborated the findings of a 2020 study by EPFL’s Urban Sociology Laboratory (LASUR) (see additional reference at bottom). The “exhausted” category consisted mainly of women (67%) and people with a lower level of education.
Respondents who lived in a home with a yard, or with a combination of outdoor spaces like a yard and balcony, had a 23% lower in increase in stress levels. © iStock
At the other extreme were the “laid back,” or people who neither felt lonely nor struggled with an excessive workload during the lockdown. Some respondents in this category reported even better working conditions than before. This category consisted mostly of people who are over 55, male (55%) and have a university degree; they also tended to live in large homes with a yard. “Our study showed that having a higher level of education protects people from the financial insecurity that can arise in these kinds of situations,” says Garance Clément, a postdoc at LASUR and a co-author of the study. “It also underscores the housing inequality that already existed in our society.”
The scientists found that students and the elderly suffered the most from loneliness during the lockdown, and especially students in smaller residences without outdoor spaces. These students made up 13% of the “isolated” category and 17% of the “exhausted” category, yet just 9% of the “laid back” category.
A new ideal housing
At a time when most functions of a city were condensed into an individual’s dwelling, 60% of respondents changed their perception of what their ideal home would be. This is one conclusion of the third study, appearing in Cities & Health. It found that women, those with a large burden of housework, and those who were forced to forgo cultural activities placed a greater emphasis on finding “a place for expression, for satisfaction of aspirations.” The scientists categorized these individuals as the “trapped” group. On the other hand, the “pragmatic” group – mainly single men, people living alone and people in temporary housing (e.g., a hotel or friend’s house) – displayed a greater desire for a home that fills the basic function of a place to eat, sleep and work.
Rooms for rent and balconies
The findings of these studies call for different actions. “Our findings should encourage public-health officials, architects and property developers to provide residential spaces that meet residents’ different needs and dynamics, as highlighted by the lockdown,” says Anna Pagani, a PhD student at HERUS and co-author of two of the studies. “This could include, for example, making common rooms accessible in a building that can be shared or used individually – such as workshops, libraries and workspaces. Such spaces would help reduce conflict among activities that are inherently incompatible. Furthermore, outdoor spaces such as balconies could address the need to interact safely with the community, thereby reducing loneliness and improving the well-being of occupants at risk of social and spatial isolation.”
Special consideration for women and students
The scientists also stress that in light of their findings, policymakers should pay closer attention to the needs of students and women during any future lockdowns. “It’s policymakers’ duty to think about what these groups will need and take the necessary measures,” says Fritz. “That will require taking account of how different people experience a lockdown and drawing on diverse forms of knowledge and expertise.” Clément adds: “This will be especially important since – unlike what we expected at the beginning of the lockdown – people have not dramatically changed their lifestyles or living habits.” Pagani believes that the pandemic, which is now dragging on, is an opportunity to make lasting improvements to the way housing is designed. “It’s a chance for us to rethink our living spaces – but it’ll be a while before we see a concrete change in residential buildings, because there’s a lot of inertia in the construction industry.”
About the survey
The LaSUR and HERUS scientists worked in association with the Idiap Research Institute and the University of Lausanne’s Institute of Psychology to distribute the survey via social media and other channels in French, German, Italian and English. The survey ran from 8 April to 10 May 2020. It was designed to gain deeper insight into the mechanisms adopted by Swiss residents in response to the lockdown (see the EPFL news article on 14 April 2020). A preliminary report on the survey results was issued in September 2020, giving an initial glimpse of respondents’ divergent experiences and revealing gender- and housing-related discrepancies (see the EPFL news article on 2 September 2021). These three journal articles paint a more detailed picture and flesh out the survey conclusions.