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Jenny Baker

COVID-19: What We Can Do to Support Our Employees?

Jing Zhang and Dianhan Zheng

The United States is among the countries hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. By late January 2021, over 25 million people in the United States have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and over 427,000 of them have died (CDC). Organizations have utilized a variety of strategies to contain the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace, such as allowing more employees to work remotely and enforcing CDC-recommended guidelines for on-site essential workers. For most employees, their work life has changed drastically in the last 10 months. In this article, we draw on recent I-O psychology research on the impact of the pandemic on different groups of workers and provide practical insights to business managers.

Healthcare Professionals

Healthcare workers who are in direct contact with COVID-19 patients are regarded as the biggest heroes during the pandemic. During the peak outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, many nurses from major Chinese cities sacrificed their safety and volunteered to work in Wuhan hospitals. A study conducted among a group of such Chinese ICU nurses found that nurses motivated by prosocial causes reported higher and more stable occupational calling during this physically and emotionally draining period, which was related to better job performance (Zhu et al., 2021). However, healthcare workers’ prosocial motivation may come at a price, as another study found that higher prosocial motivation exacerbated the positive correlation between doctors’ and nurses’ intense involvement in COVID-19 care and their emotional exhaustion (Caldas et al., 2021).

Although healthcare workers’ performance during a pandemic is the key to saving more lives, healthcare organizations should also recognize that their mental well-being, which is under unprecedented threat, is equally important. A recent review showed that healthcare workers are facing high degrees of stress, anxiety, depression, and insomnia due to the pandemic (Spoorthy et al., 2020). To alleviate the negative impact, health care organizations should:

  • Communicate to their employees their works’ impact and worth
  • Invest significant resources into equipment and training to support worker safety
  • Invest substantial funds into rapid testing approaches to facilitate testing
  • Evaluate and monitor stress reactions experienced by healthcare workers
  • Provide necessary institutional support for mental health. For example, a New York hospital provided an outlet for their nursing staff to share their stories and experiences, which was very well-received. The American Nurses Association has launched a national initiative to provide nurses with resources and tools to boost their mental health, such as a wellness mobile app and research-based tools such as expressive writing.

As many healthcare workers have been receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, medical organizations should continue to ensure that healthcare workers receive adequate training and personal protective equipment (PPE), and have time and opportunities to recover from daily draining experiences.

Retail and Other Essential Workers

One-fifth of America's workers in sales, food preparation and serving, and other related occupations (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020) are especially vulnerable to the current pandemic. Consumers have higher expectations about in-store safety, which can lead to special job demands due to COVID-19 (Wang et al., 2020). For example, employees may take on additional responsibilities of cleaning and ensuring the mask wearing of consumers. In one store sample, retail workers with direct exposure to customers were five times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 compared to those who were able to practice social distancing consistently at work (Lan et al., 2020).

Food system workers (e.g., farmers/producers, emergency food system staff such as food pantry workers), who have long been paid low wages and offered few benefits, are often underprotected during the pandemic (Parks et al., 2020). The COVID-19 outbreak at Tyson meat plants in 2020 exemplified the disastrous outcomes of organizations’ and managers’ lack of concern for employee safety and health. The following practices not only help ensure the safety of those workers but also convey the message that the organization cares about their well-being:

  • Provide PPE
  • Offer routine COVID-19 testing
  • Develop policies to assist working parents with children and other family responsibilities, such as offering paid time off and paid family and medical leave  

Teleworkers

Among those individuals fortunate enough to not be a part of the 15.8 million who were unemployed in December 2020, 23.7% teleworked because of the pandemic (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020). This mandatory full-time telework is different from the partial, flexible work arrangements that employees were used to. A diary study conducted in Singapore showed that experiencing task setbacks caused by COVID-19 was significantly correlated to teleworker’s end-of-day exhaustion and next-day withdrawal behaviors, especially for employees whose tasks required them to frequently coordinate with other coworkers (Chong et al., 2020).

  • To mitigate the detrimental effects of COVID-related task setbacks, organizations should provide greater telework task support (e.g., job-related information, tools, materials, IT resources).
  • Managers need to provide guidance and a clear direction that will ensure that tasks are understood by your employees. Meanwhile, they should grant employees with necessary autonomy to enable them to adapt to difficult situations (Bartsch et al., 2020).

Besides, prior studies have shown that social interactions among coworkers are critical for mental and physical health (Mogliner, et al., 2018). With social distancing and working from home, some employees may feel lonely and isolated (Kniffin, et al., 2021). Organizations can:

  • Design virtual social events that are inclusive to all employees
  • Invent a wide variety of online activities to foster social connectedness among employees. Many companies have been quite creative to foster social connectedness among their teleworkers, such as hosting a virtual pet parade featuring employees’ new coworkers—their pets—as well as virtual book clubs, team-bonding movie nights, and so on.

Last, with the closing of in-person schools and childcare centers, dual-earner couples might have to juggle work and childcare roles. A recent study found that division of labor at homes with young children during COVID-19 is still largely gendered, with wives working remotely and still taking on most childcare duties. Furthermore, wives working remotely and doing all childcare was associated with negative outcomes in both work and home spheres, for both wives and husbands (Shockley, et al., 2021). To preserve the well-being and performance of dual-earner couples who both work from home with their children, the organization may provide flexibility that allows employees to complete work during non-business hours. Such a schedule would allow husbands and wives to take turns caring for their family during the day and finish their work at night.

 

Conclusion

In summary, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought significant changes to the workplace, some of which might be permanent. Findings showed that feelings of fear and apprehension about contracting COVID19 impacted critical job, family, and health outcomes including goal progress, family engagement, and somatic complications (Trougakos, et al., 2020). It is important for management to recognize the impact of the pandemic on employees and provide them with the necessary resources. Regardless of the industry, in assisting employees to stay engaged and calm, organizations should:

  • Follow CDC-recommended safety guidelines
  • Provide continuous communications of job meaning
  • Provide clear guidance and strong support on tasks
  • Recognize employees’ emotions and unique needs caused by the pandemic

 

References

Bartsch, Silke, Weber, Ellen, Büttgen, Marion, & Huber, Ariana. (2020). Leadership matters in crisis-induced digital transformation: How to lead service employees effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Service Management, 32(1), 71–85. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOSM-05-2020-0160

Caldas, M. P., Ostermeier, K., & Cooper, D. (2021). When helping hurts: COVID-19 critical incident involvement and resource depletion in health care workers. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(1), 29–47. https://doi.org/10.1037/apl0000850

Chong, S., Huang, Y., & Chang, C. H. D. (2020). Supporting interdependent telework employees: A moderated-mediation model linking daily COVID-19 task setbacks to next-day work withdrawal. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(12), 1408-1422. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000843 

Kniffin, K. M., Narayanan, J., Anseel, F., Antonakis, J., Ashford, S. P., Bakker, A. B., Bamberger, P., Bapuji, H., Bhave, D. P., Choi, V. K., Creary, S. J., Demerouti, E., Flynn, F. J., Gelfand, M. J., Greer, L. L., Johns, G., Kesebir, S., Klein, P. G., Lee, S. Y., …Vugt, M. V. (2021). COVID-19 and the workplace: Implications, issues, and insights for future research and action. American Psychologist, 76(1), 63-77. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000716

Lan, F. Y., Suharlim, C., Kales, S. N., & Yang, J. (2020). Association between SARS-CoV-2 infection, exposure risk and mental health among a cohort of essential retail workers in the USA. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/oemed-2020-106774 

Mogilner, C., Whillans, A., & Norton, M. I. (2018). Time, money, and subjective well-being. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. DEF Publishers. DOI: nobascholar.com

Parks, C. A., Nugent, N. B., Fleischhacker, S. E., & Yaroch, A. L. (2020). Food system workers are the unexpected but under protected COVID heroes. Journal of Nutrition, 150(8), 2006-2008. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxaa173 

Shockley, K. M., Clark, M. A., Dodd, H., & King, E. B. (2021). Work-family strategies during COVID-19: Examining gender dynamics among dual-earner couples with young children. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(1), 15-28. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000857

Spoorthy, M. S., Pratapa, S. K., & Mahant, S. (2020). Mental health problems faced by healthcare workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic–a review. Asian Journal of Psychiatry, 51, 102119. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajp.2020.102119 

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, 105(11), 1234-1245. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000739 

U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2020. May 2019 national occupational employment and wage estimates. https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm

Wang, Y., Xu, R., Schwartz, M., Ghosh, D., & Chen, X. (2020). COVID-19 and retail grocery management: Insights from a broad-based consumer survey. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 48(3), 202-211. https://doi.org/10.1109/EMR.2020.3011054

Zhu, Y., Chen, T., Wang, J., Wang, M., Johnson, R. E., & Jin, Y. (2021). How critical activities within COVID-19 intensive care units increase nurses’ daily occupational calling. Journal of Applied Psychology, 106(1), 4-14. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/apl0000853

 

Biography

Dr. Jing Zhang

Assistant Professor: Management-California State University

https://www.csusb.edu/profile/jing.zhang

 

Dr. Dianhan Zheng

Assistant Professor: Industrial-Organizational Psychology-Kennesaw State University

http://facultyweb.kennesaw.edu/dzheng4/

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