The Effects of Economic Stress on Following Health Guidelines

stressed woman working at home with kids

Economic stressors can come in various forms, including job insecurity and financial insecurity—both common occurrences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Economic stress is mentally draining and may lead to negative outcomes such as reduced physical and mental health or increased injuries and accidents at work. However, these harmful effects could be mitigated when a social “safety net” is in place. 


New research (Probst et al., 2020) examines how economic stressors impact the likelihood of following CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19. These guidelines include things like staying 6 feet away from others, staying home when possible, and frequent hand-washing. They also examine how two US state-level factors – unemployment insurance benefits and the extensiveness of state-wide COVID-related restrictions – may influence the relationship between economic stressors and compliance with CDC guidelines. The authors tested these questions by analyzing data collected from 745 US employees.


The researchers found that the economic stressors of job insecurity (fear of losing a job) and financial insecurity (fear of not having enough money to make ends meet) were both negatively related to compliance with CDC guidelines. This means that more economic stress was associated with less compliance and less economic stress was associated with more compliance. However, they found that the relationship between job insecurity and compliance with CDC guidelines was weaker for people who live in states with better unemployment benefits.

Additionally, the researchers found that in states with more restrictive state-wide policies (such as limits on gatherings, closing of certain businesses, travel limitations), financially secure people were more likely to comply with CDC-guidelines compared to people who were financially insecure. The researchers suggest this may be because state-wide restrictions on behavior can impose additional burdens on people who are already worried about keeping their job or having enough money to make ends meet. 


The results of this study suggest that workers facing economic stress during the COVID-19 pandemic may be less likely to comply with CDC guidelines. Further, state-wide policies – such as unemployment benefits and state-wide restrictions – can influence the strength and direction of these effects.

These findings have implications for organizations and policymakers. Specifically, the authors of the study suggest that during economic recessions, organizations and policymakers should seek creative ways to avoid layoffs, such as wage replacement grants to businesses who retain their workers. This would allow workers to avoid job insecurity and financial insecurity, which could give them more cognitive resources to devote to complying with CDC guidelines. This could in turn improve public health outcomes.

Probst, T. M., Lee, H. J., & Bazzoli, A. (2020). Economic stressors and the enactment of CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention behaviors: The impact of state-level context. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(12), 1397–1407.