Work and Well-Being at Duke During the Pandemic

Project ROUSE is an independent study that has requested the perspectives of all Duke University employees. Participation is critical as the researchers seek to understand how every person is affected by this public health emergency.

Duke researchers are looking for answers to important questions: How are you coping with the pandemic? How has it affected your health and well-being? How has your work situation changed and impacted you?

An interdisciplinary faculty team is leading the study: Tyson Brown (Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Director, Center on Health & Society); Rachel Kranton (James B. Duke Professor, Department of Economics and Dean of Social Sciences, Trinity College of Arts & Sciences); Don Taylor (Professor, Sanford School of Public Policy and Director, Social Science Research Institute); Duncan Thomas (Norb F. Schaefer Professor of International Studies, Department of Economics).

The Office for Faculty Advancement recently sponsored a discussion with the team of faculty researchers and Claudia Gunsch, Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Advancement, led the conversation on how the pandemic is affecting the Duke community. Members of the study team have begun aggregating all answers in order to develop a better understanding of the impacts of COVID-19, considering that people’s experiences differ depending on their circumstances.

Rachel Kranton

Our goal is to understand the effect of the pandemic on productivity, health, and well-being. We had a unique opportunity to hopefully accomplish this goal by studying our very own population/communities at Duke. What’s interesting about our community is that we’re a population that has been at very low risk of infection and more economically secure, relative to other parts of the United States.

The population is Duke University communities, including the Medical School, but not the Duke University Health System, so we’re not dealing with health workers, per se. The breakdown is roughly 19% faculty, 60% staff, and 21% students (this does not include all students, rather only students who are currently employed by the University).

Findings on Depression

  • Almost 5,000 respondents age 18-81 years reported high rates of depression symptoms with more than 40% reporting levels that indicate risk of moderate depression and 25% indicating risk of severe depression
  • There is a very steep age gradient with the highest levels reported by the youngest respondents of whom over 40% are at risk of severe depression
  • Symptoms are worse among those who report the demands of work often interfere with family responsibilities, but these pressures neither explain the high reported rates nor the steep age gradient
  • Severe depression risks are highest among students
  • High levels of depression symptoms during the pandemic appear to be persistent and not confined to those at greatest risk of infection or economic insecurity

Tyson Brown

We asked a number of questions about compliance because it has played such a key role in mitigating community spread at Duke. The study examines compliance behavior related to several safety protocols, including wearing masks, handwashing, and social distancing.

Findings on Mask Wearing

  • Almost 90% reported always wearing a mask on campus or at work
  • Wearing a mask outside of work was similarly high
  • Females are more likely than males to be compliant with wearing a mask at work
  • Black employees at Duke were more likely than their white counterparts to always wear a mask at work
  • No differences across various positions (student, service worker, researcher, administrator, etc.)

Duncan Thomas

What is the state of mental health now relative to earlier in the pandemic? In October and November 2020, we had about 40% at risk of moderate depression on the CESD screener, 23% for severe depression, 72% reported having trouble concentrating, and 73% felt anxious.

We asked the same questions in March and April 2021. Our very preliminary results indicate that things look a bit worse now: we are seeing an increase in the prevalence of all the depression symptoms among older participants. This is surprising since many of them have been vaccinated.

These preliminary results are disturbing.They also highlight reasons for continuing the study: we really need evidence on the longer-term impacts of COVID and what can be done to mitigate these effects.


After talking with some of the staff on campus, they are very reluctant to give information to Duke researchers, because they fear that the health information may be used against them in some way. And I’m wondering, what would you do to encourage participation?

Tyson Brown

We really want to hear from all Duke employees so that we can have a better understanding of how the pandemic is affecting our entire community.  I’ll also mention that project ROUSE is an independent research study, not an administrative survey being collected by Duke. As outlined in our IRB-approved research plan, we are committed to keeping the data confidential, so there is no risk of this information being used by other entities.


You rank order of the different issues that were influencing the way that people were feeling last year. Do you have any information about how that stratified across demographic groups, because I would imagine that some of the things, like politics and racism, might impact underrepresented communities in a way that’s different than majority groups. Can you talk a little bit about how you all looked at the individual groups in the context of the larger aggregated data?

Duncan Thomas 

The preliminary studies that we’ve done so far, show the concerns about COVID tend to rise with age and concerns about work and study tend to decline with age.

You’re absolutely right that issues regarding racism, not so much extremist violence, but issues regarding racism, is significantly higher among the non-white members of our community.

Project ROUSE
is an independent research study conducted by faculty at Duke University. With your input, we can generate knowledge for society and help guide sensible and effective policies. We hope you will share your experiences and insights and participate in this study.

Scroll to Top