How Employee Autonomy is Restored During COVID-19

covid 19
Topic(s): personality, stress, wellness
Publication: Journal of Applied Psychology (2020)
Article: Getting Back to the “New Normal”: Autonomy Restoration during a Global Pandemic
Authors: E.M. Anicich, T.A. Foulk, M.R. Osborne, J. Gale, M. Schaerer
Reviewed by: Josie Anker

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a massive, ongoing public health and economic crisis. In addition to the many lives tragically lost due to the virus, the pandemic has also drastically affected employees’ experiences at work. Consequences of the virus, such as the risk of infection, job instability, and new requirements imposed on physical movement like stay-at-home orders and social distancing, can be extremely stressful for employees and harmful to their well-being. Therefore, it is important to understand how people can recover their well-being when faced with an ongoing stressor such as COVID-19.

One key aspect of well-being that may be threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic is employee autonomy. Autonomy refers to the ability to feel in control of one’s actions, as well as the feeling that the self is in tune with personal values and goals. Therefore, when autonomy is threatened, employees may suffer from feelings of powerlessness and reduced authenticity. 


Previous research has investigated how people begin to recover their well-being after a stressor has started to go away or has gone away completely. However, such research does not consider whether recovery can begin while a stressor is still ongoing. New research (Anicich et al., 2020) addresses this question and examines patterns of how employee autonomy is recovered in the midst of a lasting stressor. To do this, the researchers collected data from employees over a two-week period beginning shortly after COVID-19 was declared both a global pandemic and a national emergency in the United States.

Participants completed three surveys each day in which their feelings of powerlessness, authenticity, and stress about COVID-19 were recorded. Participants also completed a measure of neuroticism. Neuroticism is a personality trait indicating a tendency towards being anxious, depressed, self-conscious, and vulnerable. The results showed that employees initially suffered from feelings of powerlessness and lowered autonomy due to COVID-19. However, over the two-week period, employees’ feelings of powerlessness decreased and feelings of authenticity increased, indicating restoration of autonomy. This recovery process was stronger for employees who were higher in neuroticism. Additionally, these patterns were found despite the fact that employee-reported stress levels remained high over the two-week period.


These results show that psychological recovery can begin even before a stressor (e.g., COVID-19) has gone away. This means that even while feelings of stress remain, employees can begin to recover their autonomy. Additionally, this pattern of recovery is even stronger for employees higher in neuroticism. This suggests that neuroticism can sometimes be beneficial, and organizations should be more cautious about assuming neuroticism is a universally negative trait. 

These findings provide more evidence that employees are resilient in the face of a crisis. Organizations can further help their employees recover their autonomy during a crisis such as COVID-19 by encouraging employees to exert more control over their work (e.g., by arranging their workspace or routine) and to act authentically (e.g., by expressing their personality more in a virtual environment).


Anicich, E. M., Foulk, T. A., Osborne, M. R., Gale, J., & Schaerer, M. (2020). Getting back to the “new normal”: Autonomy restoration during a global pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(9), 931-943.