Pandemic-related stress leads to less employee engagement

October 25, 2020

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Pandemic-related stress leads to less employee engagement

As COVID-19 cases surged this spring, the pandemic led some people to ponder their own mortality more than others. A new study in China and the United States suggests that these people were the ones who showed the highest levels of stress and the least engagement at work.

But the research also uncovered a bright spot: The right kind of boss helped reduce stress and increase engagement and pro-social behavior in their workers who were anxious about COVID-19.

What the researchers say: “A global pandemic can lead some people to think about their own mortality, which will understandably make them more stressed and less engaged at work,” said the lead author of the study. “But business leaders who are attentive to employees’ emotional needs and unite them behind a common purpose made a positive difference and helped workers stay engaged at work and contribute to their communities.”

The study was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

The researchers conducted three studies. One study involved 163 workers at an information technology company in eastern China who filled out surveys twice a day over three weeks while cases of COVID-19 were surging in the country.

Results showed that the more the employees thought about COVID-19 related deaths, the more anxious they felt and the less engaged they were in their jobs.

But the employees’ anxiety and engagement were influenced by the type of boss they had. Employees did better if their boss exhibited what is called “servant leadership.” As the name implies, servant leaders prioritize fulfillment of others’ needs, attend to employees’ emotional suffering, work to empower employees, and emphasize serving the community (note: this type of leadership is a variation of “transformational leadership”).

Employees in the study rated on a scale of 1 to 7 how much “My supervisor makes my career development a priority” and other statements that measured servant leadership. Those who rated their supervisors higher on servant leadership showed less anxiety and were more engaged with their jobs than other employees.

“Servant leaders care about their employees’ well-being and prioritize their personal growth and happiness at their jobs,” the researchers said. “These types of leaders made it easier for their employees to deal with the anxiety associated with the pandemic.”

But servant leaders did more than that: They helped their employees channel their stress into positive behaviors.

The findings showed that employees who rated their bosses as higher on servant leadership were more likely to report that they engaged in pro-social behavior, such as volunteering for a charitable group in their community.

“Servant leaders encouraged their employees to find meaning in the pandemic by channeling their anxiety into helping less fortunate people in their communities,” said the lead author.

These results were confirmed in two U.S. studies. In both these studies, those who had servant leaders showed less anxiety. And just like in the Chinese employees, the type of leadership had an impact on pro-social behavior.

Overall, the three studies showed that companies play an important role in helping their employees cope with the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, said the lead author, which benefits both the firms and their communities.

“We found that servant leaders who keep their employees’ well-being as a top concern can help their anxious workers stay engaged at work and encourage them to contribute to the broader community,” she said.

So, what? In stressful times people look to their leaders to be good and protective parents—part of what is called adult attachment theory. However, firms which use the pandemic to cut staff, make home working permanent and in other ways show that they don’t care about their employees make the situation much worse.

Regretfully, in our modern society, there’s often nothing but the work “tribe” to fall back on—we’ve destroyed many of the other types of supportive community in the service of creating a mass workforce—which many businesses now realize they no longer need.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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