In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have experienced heightened levels of stress and anxiety. Not only do employees have to deal with the usual stress of balancing their work and family demands, but now they also face a new kind of anxiety called COVID-19 health anxiety, meaning anxiety about having or contracting COVID-19.
Due to COVID-19 health anxiety being a new phenomenon, there is a lack of knowledge on how it may impact people’s lives. It is important to understand the mechanisms and outcomes of this new form of anxiety in order to better support employees and create interventions that can reduce negative outcomes.
OUTCOMES OF COVID-19 HEALTH ANXIETY
New research (Trougakos et al., 2020) explores how COVID-19 health anxiety has impacted employee outcomes across the work, family, and health domains. The researchers surveyed employees across four weeks, starting when stay-at-home and social distancing orders were enacted.
The results of this study showed that COVID-19 health anxiety is indeed related to poor outcomes across employees’ work, family, and health domains, even when controlling for employees’ trait levels of anxiety. Specifically, COVID-19 health anxiety was associated with increased levels of emotion suppression, which is a coping mechanism. This emotion suppression was associated with decreased psychological need fulfilment. This lack of psychological need fulfillment, in turn, was associated with less goal progress (a work-related outcome), less family engagement (a family-related outcome), and more somatic complaints (a health-related outcome).
Importantly, the relationship between COVID-19 health anxiety and these undesirable outcomes was reduced by frequent hand washing. The authors suggest that since hand washing can kill the virus, it is a way to exert control over COVID-19, making this a form of problem-focused coping. By using hand washing as a coping mechanism, employees are less likely to cope using emotion suppression, thereby weakening the negative relationship between COVID-19 health anxiety and work, family, and health outcomes.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results of this study suggest that COVID-19 health anxiety is negatively related to employees’ work effectiveness, family engagement, and personal health. However, this negative relationship is weaker when employees exhibit frequent hand washing. Organizations should understand this new anxiety that many of their employees may be facing and take action to mitigate its detrimental effects. The authors suggest that offering training and seminars on subjects like resilience, stress management, and work-life balance may be useful for employees who are experiencing anxiety at work, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Trougakos, J. P., Chawla, N., & McCarthy, J. M. (2020). Working in a pandemic: Exploring the impact of COVID-19 health anxiety on work, family, and health outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, advance online publication.