Keeping Employees Focused on Work During Difficult Times

minority group of employees

Organizations have found it increasingly challenging to help employees focus on their work, as the COVID-19 pandemic has added emotional, cognitive, and financial stress to employees’ lives. In addition, employees who temporarily worked from home are (or will be) challenged with reintegration into the workplace. To help employees refocus on their work, recent research (Yuan et al., 2020) examined various factors that aid in increasing job engagement. 


Researchers surveyed 395 supervisor-employee matches from Wuhan, China at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants qualified for the study if they had stopped working during the first lockdown and then returned to their jobs post-lockdown. Participants and their supervisors were surveyed at three time points to examine factors associated with job engagement. 

Results from their study found that job reattachment predicted job engagement. Job reattachment is a type of mental preparation that involves reconnecting for work by mobilizing energy and directing attention. These results suggest that those who were better able to mentally reconnect with their work were more likely to be actually engaged with their job. 


Further analysis found that managers played a key role in aiding workers’ job engagement. Results indicated that workers with supervisors who had higher safety commitment—the extent to which managers enact the organizations’ safety practices—strengthened the effectiveness of job reattachment in increasing job engagement. The researchers argued that employees with managers who followed safety precautions felt physically safer by the example that their manager was setting, and these employees were better able to focus and engage in their work. 

Finally, results suggest that as job engagement increased, employees were less likely to withdraw from work, were more likely to wear personal protective equipment, and had higher levels of task performance; these effects were stronger when managers were perceived to have higher safety commitment. 


Taken together, this study provides evidence that managers can strengthen reattached employees job engagement—specifically through their commitment to safety, which subsequently affects employee performance and tendency to follow safety guidelines. Therefore, managers should be strongly encouraged to lead by example and actively maintain and promote workplace health and safety guidelines. Managers engaging in these behaviors may not only aid in forming a climate in which employees feel safe, but they may also help contribute to higher job performance.

Yuan, Z., Ye, Z., & Zhong, M. (2020). Plug back into work, safely: Job reattachment, leader safety commitment, and job engagement in the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.