The Psychological Demands on Health Care Workers During a Pandemic

male healthcare worker
Topic(s): burnout, stress, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2020)
Article: When helping hurts: COVID-19 critical incident involvement and resource depletion in health care workers
Authors: M. P. Caldas, K. Ostermeier, D. Cooper
Reviewed by: Josie Anker

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically increased the demands placed on healthcare workers. In addition to the increased risk of actually contracting the coronavirus, healthcare workers are also likely to face increased stress and work demands. However, research has not yet investigated the psychological and emotional outcomes that healthcare workers are experiencing.


The researchers of this study (Caldas et al., 2020) administered surveys to healthcare workers before and during the pandemic; they found that intensity of involvement at work during COVID-19 was associated with higher emotional exhaustion. Additionally, one dimension of job involvement, called “exposure to self” – which in this case refers to exposure to COVID-19 – was related to increased levels of emotional exhaustion and depression. 

The researchers also found that the relationship between involvement and emotional exhaustion was stronger for employees with higher prosocial motivation, which refers to the tendency to focus on helping others. The researchers suggest that prosocial motivation strengthens this relationship because prosocially motivated workers may feel more pressure to care for others before addressing their own needs.   


The results of this study suggest that intense work during stressful times can be detrimental to well-being. Interestingly, outcomes may be even worse for workers with high prosocial motivation. This suggests that organizations should take added measures to support their workers who are highly involved in their work during crises such as COVID-19.

For example, organizations should prioritize protecting their employees (e.g., ensure adequate protective equipment and testing), develop interventions that help employees understand how meaningful their work is, and allow days off for recovery whenever possible. Further, organizations should especially look out for employees with high prosocial motivation, as they may be particularly at-risk for negative emotional and psychological outcomes.

Caldas, M. P., Ostermeier, K., & Cooper, D. (2020). When helping hurts: COVID-19 critical incident involvement and resource depletion in health care workers. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.