Employee Emotional Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic

diverse employees in office post covid-19
Topic(s): wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2021)
Article: Getting Worse or Getting Better? Understanding the Antecedents and Consequences of Emotion Profile Transitions during COVID-19-Induced Organizational Crisis
Authors: J. E. Slaughter, A. S. Gabriel, M. L. Ganster, H. Vaziri, & R. L. MacGowan
Reviewed by: David Facteau

The COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to continued disruptions to normal work-life. How have employees responded to these continued disruptions? New research (Slaughter et al., 2021) examines which emotions arise in employees in response to disruption, and how these emotions may be shaped by perceptions of leader trustworthiness. 


The researchers recruited employees from a large university in the United States and surveyed participants over the course of 5 months (from July 2020 to November 2020). Results from the analyses revealed that four discrete emotional profiles emerged. Two profiles were anchored by primarily positive emotions (labeled glass full and glass half-full), one profile was anchored by negative emotions (labeled glass empty), and one profile had low levels of both positive and negative emotions (labeled devoid). 

The largest emotional profile across the months was the devoid profile which was characterized by low levels of hope, gratitude, fear, and resentment. This provided evidence that many employees cope with the pandemic by maintaining low levels of discrete emotions. The second largest emotional profile was glass half-full. Glass half-full was characterized by moderate hope and gratitude, and lower levels of fear and resentment. The third largest profile was glass empty—which included low levels of hope and gratitude and higher levels of fear and resentment. Finally, the smallest group was the glass full group which included participants who had high levels of hope and gratitude and low levels of fear and resentment. 


The researchers also examined how people transitioned across profiles over time. The most stable profile was glass full—with these individuals being more likely to be glass full across each month of the study. The least stable profile was glass empty. Individuals in the glass empty profile were more likely to transition to glass half-full over time. When individuals did transition across profiles, they were most likely to transition from devoid to glass half-full. 

Interestingly, the researchers examined how perceptions of leader behavior affected transitions to different emotional profiles. During the pandemic, lower perceptions of leader ability were related to transitioning from glass half-full to glass full. Additionally, employees were more likely to transition from devoid to glass empty when perceptions of leader integrity, benevolence, and ability were lower. Finally, when leader perceptions were more positive, participants were more likely to transition from more negative profiles to more positive profiles. These positive transitions were associated with more positive outcomes for employees, such as higher engagement, fewer somatic complaints, and lower cyberloafing. However, they engaged in less COVID prevention behaviors, such as handwashing. 


Results from this study suggest that (1) employees respond to work disruptions with a mix of emotions that may change over time, and (2) leaders play a crucial role in shaping these emotional responses. Participants had more positive emotional profiles when they trusted their leader—and this translated generally to more positive outcomes. Therefore, it is critical that leaders demonstrate they care, provide concrete evidence that they can handle a crisis, and be fair and honest with employees. However, it should be noted that participants in positive profiles reported less COVID prevention behavior. Organizations should continue to implement clear COVID safety protocols to prevent further spread within the workplace. 

Slaughter, J. E., Gabriel, A. S., Ganster, M. L., Vaziri, H., & MacGowan, R. L. (2021). Getting worse or getting better? Understanding the antecedents and consequences of emotion profile transitions during COVID-19-induced organizational crisis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(8), 1118-1136.