New research shows that COVID pressure is killing employee engagement

Key points

  • The pandemic may cause a significant decline in the relationship between employees and work, causing persistent problems for employers.
  • Researchers believe that this response may be related to a theory called terror management, which involves deep feelings of self-protection.
  • The answer may be an organizational strategy called servant leadership, in which managers prioritize the needs of employees.

According to a study recently published in the journal, the persistence of COVID-19 has caused many workers to feel anxious, which may lead to a significant decrease in their work participation. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Using an information technology company as an example of a standard workforce, researchers found that fears about the virus reduced engagement, leading to reduced motivation, slowing down of work, and struggling with life’s purpose and meaning.

High anxiety, low participation

In an experiment, two surveys were sent to 163 employees every day at noon and 6 pm to measure their anxiety and work engagement. The researchers also collected information on whether career development is considered a priority by each employee’s supervisor. Researchers found that the lower the emphasis on career track, the higher the degree of disengagement.

The second experiment included 282 participants from another company. It also measured anxiety and work engagement, as well as “pro-social behavior,” which means the extent to which employees help others-such as donating to charities or doing volunteer work.

Similar to the first experiment, increased anxiety and concerns about mortality proved to be important distractions in the workplace, leading to reduced participation and reduced productivity.

root cause

In addition to struggling with major changes, many workers in recent studies also showed signs of “terrorist management.” The theory suggests that stress can produce psychological conflicts, trigger self-protection instincts and fear of death. This may also involve:

  • anxiety
  • Lonely
  • Reduce happiness or self-care
  • quit
  • Low self-esteem

But not everyone facing fear has negative emotions and behaviors. Researchers point out that terror management has led some people to reflect on mortality in a positive way. This can lead to:

  • Perspective life
  • Overcome obstacles
  • Cherish the present
  • Thankful
  • Provide help to others
  • Find meaning and purpose at work

The co-author of the study, Dr. Hu Jia of the Fisher School of Business at Ohio State University, said that in terms of what might lead people to make one set of responses rather than another, it has nothing to do with self-directed motivation or perseverance.

“Feeling being valued can cushion the negative effects of anxiety,” she said. “During a crisis, employees do not face challenges alone. In the workplace, leaders play a vital role in reducing the potential cost of anxiety.”

Most importantly, many workers have been working from home since the spring, which may lead to increased feelings of isolation and separation from the workplace.

Moe Gelbart, PhD

It is important to recognize that mentally healthy and happy employees will become productive employees and vice versa.

— Dr. Moe Gelbart

The rise of servant leadership

One of the biggest buzzwords in organizational management is “servant leadership.” This year, it has become a more prominent theory as managers and executives strive to meet the needs of employees.

Hu said that servant leadership is a group of behaviors that put the needs of employees above the needs of the organization or any productivity goals. The principles of this approach include:

  • Show empathy
  • Listen and solicit feedback
  • Understand each employee as an individual
  • Emphasis on empowerment
  • Be humble rather than authoritative
  • Find ways to increase the development and potential of each employee

“This is a particularly valuable way to keep anxious employees working,” she points out. “It can also promote pro-social behaviors, such as helping each other, so they are more interested in collaboration and cooperation.”

Hu Jia, PhD

Feeling valued can cushion the negative effects of anxiety. During a crisis, employees will not face challenges alone. In the workplace, leaders play a vital role in reducing the potential cost of anxiety.

—Hu Jia, PhD

Mental health section

Community Psychiatry Practice Development Director Dr. Moe Gelbart said that in addition to demonstrating the types of behavior seen by servant leaders, managers and executives also need to emphasize that the mental health of employees is important and supported. His expertise includes work pressure.

“It is important to recognize that mentally healthy and happy employees will become productive employees, and vice versa,” he said. “The company can determine the main sources of stress that people feel, as well as the sources of stress that are unique to specific groups.” He said these might include:

  • Fear of job security
  • Care for a healthy and safe working environment
  • Health of family members
  • Pressure on distance learning and childcare

Gelbart said that employers should provide consulting resources for employees and their families, adding that employers should pay attention to signs of low participation, such as low productivity, lateness or absenteeism, and irritability to others.

“Although employers can solve this behavior, finding the root cause of symptoms is essential, and an understanding and caring employer can convey this,” he said.

What this means to you

Both employees and employers are responding to the excessive pressure caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of your situation, it is important to remember that people are now struggling with health issues, job changes, school issues, etc.

Pay attention to your colleagues and employees, take time to take care of yourself, and investigate the ways in which your business location can help and promote positive adjustments during this difficult time.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means that you may receive updated information while reading this article. For the latest updates on COVID-19, please visit our Coronavirus News page.