April 29, 2020
Stephanie Andel was in just her second semester as a faculty member in IUPUI’s School of Science when COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.
Andel, an assistant professor who applies psychology to the workplace, quickly decided to gather insight from employees to understand how the pandemic is influencing their health, well-being, and work experiences.
“My research typically focuses on understanding the implications of work-related stressors on employee health outcomes,” Andel said. “Given that the pandemic is a major stressor influencing every part of our lives, including our work lives, I knew it would be a critical time to study employee stress.”
Andel already knew the pandemic would influence employees’ lives in a variety of ways. For instance, some employees may have trouble balancing work and family lives as they try to manage a new routine of working from home while simultaneously dealing with childcare responsibilities. Others may experience greater personal and professional isolation due to new remote working arrangements. Still others are likely to experience higher levels of job insecurity as non-essential businesses remain closed.
On March 16 – just days after a national emergency was declared in the United States and the week that large cities including San Francisco began issuing shelter-in-place orders – Andel led an effort with colleagues from York University and the University of Central Florida to launch an eight-week study tracking the pandemic’s impact on employees in the United States and Canada.
The study consists of a series of online surveys that ask participants about topics including work-related loneliness, perceptions of job insecurity, and how the pandemic is affecting their health, well-being, and engagement with work. By surveying employees in both countries, the study will explore how employee experiences differ based on country-level factors, including resources provided and virus spread.
Soon after launching this study, it became clear to the research team that people were losing their jobs at a rapid pace. In fact, within a month of launch, almost 14 percent of the initial sample was permanently or temporarily out of work. The researchers chose to expand the survey to ask how these individuals were coping with job loss, how they were conducting job searches during the pandemic, and more.
Andel has already identified trends from the initial data and will be monitoring to see how these factors change. For example, preliminary analyses from the first survey showed that employees who were higher in self-compassion – those who are more willing to extend compassion and kindness toward themselves during times of suffering – reported less work-related loneliness, lower levels of work and family conflict, less anxiety and depression, and higher levels of work engagement in comparison to those lower on self-compassion.
The initial results also highlighted the impact that organizations are having on employees’ health and well-being during the pandemic. Preliminary analyses show that when supervisors provided clear communications about the organization’s response to COVID-19, employees felt less anxious, depressed, and lonely, and were more likely to remain engaged in their work.
These early results have a number of practical implications for employees and organizations.
“Our findings suggest that implementing organizational interventions aimed at promoting employee self-compassion may serve as an effective way to support employees’ health and well-being during this time of crisis,” Andel said. “Our results also show that it is more important now than ever for supervisors to focus on communicating clearly, consistently, and honestly with their employees.
“Overall,” she continued, “the insights gained from this project will shed light on which company and personal factors are influencing employee health and well-being during this time, which will help us understand what organizations can do to better support employees in the future during crises – including pandemics.”
Andel will soon launch a second study with colleagues from York University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Baltimore to explore how the pandemic is influencing the lives of U.S. nurses working on the frontlines battling COVID-19. She wants to understand how the immense pressures and risks these healthcare professionals are taking influence their own physical and psychological health and safety.
She is also hoping to understand the impact of the pandemic on their family lives.
“When you are a healthcare professional and you are working on the front lines, you are likely very concerned about bringing the virus home to your family, so how are these individuals coping with this situation, and what are the implications of this stress?” Andel said. “We’re studying how this tension affects their relationships with family members, and how that in turn funnels back to work outcomes, such as safety and patient care.”
The results of both studies have the potential to inform change at organizational and policy levels. For example, the study findings can inform legislative policies that may be needed to address staffing issues during pandemics, and they may provide organizations with information on the types of support employees’ are most likely to benefit from, as well as the training supervisors may need to deliver those supports.
“Ultimately, our hope is that the findings from these studies will help inform organizational decision-makers and policymakers once the crisis is over, and contribute to a safer, healthier, and better-prepared environment for all workers in the years to come,” Andel said.