Exposure to Changing Stressors Impacts Anxiety and Work Outcomes

stressed man at work

Workplace stress has been studied extensively. However, most research in this area evaluates stress either by taking the average intensity level of a stressor or by considering event-specific “episodes” of stress. Both of these approaches ignore an important feature of ongoing stress—namely, that the stressor may change over time. More specifically, ongoing stressors can increase or decrease in intensity over time, and may do so at varying speeds. 

These patterns of change in stressors may result in distinct emotional responses. For example, two stressors may have the same “average” intensity level, but if one stressor is consistently moderately stressful, this may have a different impact than a stressor that is mildly stressful one day, but very stressful the next. Additionally, an isolated stressful event may have a different impact than a stressful event that follows a series of other stressful events.


The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is an example of a stressor that is ongoing and changing. New research (Fu et al., 2021) examines how employee anxiety responses and work outcomes change throughout the unfolding pandemic. 

The results of the study show that the average level of COVID-19 cases in an employee’s state as well as the velocity and acceleration of change in cases are associated with daily levels of anxiety. However, the anxiety-causing impact of the average level of COVID-19 cases was alleviated as the pandemic continued, while the anxiety-causing effects of change in cases (velocity and acceleration) worsened as the pandemic continued. 

In turn, the daily anxiety caused by COVID-19 is associated with undesirable work outcomes in the form of lower engagement, worse performance, and higher emotional exhaustion the next day.


These results show that the overall level of a crisis and the rate of change of a crisis may have different effects on anxiety and subsequent work outcomes. Beyond the context of COVID-19, this study shows that people may get used to stressors over time, as long as the stressors remain constant. On the other hand, when stressors continue to change in velocity or acceleration, they may also continue to lead to increased anxiety and impaired work functioning. Organizations should therefore focus intervention efforts on stressors that change rather than those that remain constant, and focus resources on employees who are experiencing changing stressors.

Fu, S. Q., Greco, L. M., Lennard, A. C., & Dimotakis, N. (2021). Anxiety responses to the unfolding COVID-19 crisis: Patterns of change in the experience of prolonged exposure to stressors. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(1), 48-61.