COVID Stress Is Stifling Employee Engagement, New Study Suggests

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Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic may be causing a significant drop in how employees relate to their jobs, creating an ongoing issue for employers.
  • The reaction could be tied to a theory called terror management, the researchers suggest, which involves deep feelings of self-preservation.
  • The answer may be an organizational strategy called servant leadership, in which managers prioritize the needs of employees.

The ongoing presence of COVID-19 is leading many in the workforce to experience anxiety that can result in significant reductions in engagement in their work, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Looking at an information technology firm as an example of a standard workforce, researchers found that concern over the virus lowered engagement levels, leading to less motivation, work slowdowns, and struggle over the purpose and meaning of life.

High Anxiety, Low Engagement

In one experiment, surveys were sent to 163 employees twice a day, at noon and 6 p.m., to measure their levels of anxiety and job engagement. Researchers also collected information on whether career development felt like a priority to each employee's supervisor. The lower the emphasis on career track, the higher the disengagement tended to be, researchers found.

A second experiment that included 282 participants at another company also measured anxiety and job engagement, as well as "prosocial behavior," which means how much employees helped others—such as donating to charity or doing volunteer work.

Similar to the first experiment, increased feelings of anxiety and a focus on mortality proved to be significant distractions in the workplace, causing lower engagement levels and less productivity.

Root Cause

In addition to struggling with major change, many workers in the recent study exhibited signs of "terror management." This theory suggests that stress can create a psychological conflict that kicks off a self-preservation instinct and fear of death. This can also involve:

  • Anxiety
  • Loneliness
  • Reduced well-being or self-care
  • Withdrawal
  • Lower self-esteem

But not everyone who is facing a sense of terror has negative feelings and behaviors. The researchers point out that terror management causes some people to reflect on mortality in a positive way. That can lead to:

  • Putting life in perspective
  • Overcoming obstacles
  • Appreciating the present
  • Feeling grateful
  • Providing help for others
  • Finding meaning and purpose in work

In terms of what might direct people to one set of reactions over the other, it's not about self-directed motivation or grit, says study co-author Jia Hu, PhD, at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University.

"Feeling valued can buffer the negative influences of anxiety," she says. "Employees do not face challenges alone during the crisis. At the workplace, leaders play vital roles in reducing the potential costs of anxiety."

On top of this, many workers have been working at home since spring, which can lead to increased feelings of isolation and disengagement from the workplace.

Moe Gelbart, PhD

Recognition that a mentally healthy and happy employee will be a productive employee, and vice versa, is essential.

— Moe Gelbart, PhD

Rise of Servant Leadership

One of the biggest buzz phrases in organizational management is "servant leadership." It has become a much more prominent theory this year as managers and executives strive to meet the needs of their employees.

Servant leadership is a set of behaviors that prioritizes the needs of employees over the needs of the organization itself or any productivity goals, says Hu. Principles of this approach include:

  • Showing empathy
  • Listening and soliciting feedback
  • Getting to know each employee as an individual
  • Emphasizing empowerment
  • Showing humility instead of authority
  • Finding ways to enhance development and potential of each employee

"This is a particularly valuable way to keep anxious employees engaged at work," she notes. "It can also promote prosocial behaviors like helping each other, so they're more interested in collaborating and cooperating."

Jia Hu, PhD

Feeling valued can buffer the negative influences of anxiety. Employees do not face challenges alone during the crisis. At the workplace, leaders play vital roles in reducing the potential costs of anxiety.

— Jia Hu, PhD

Mental Health Component

In addition to showing the types of behaviors seen with servant leadership, managers and executives also need to emphasize that employee mental health is important and supported, according to Moe Gelbart, PhD, director of practice development for Community Psychiatry. His specializations include workplace stress.

"Recognition that a mentally healthy and happy employee will be a productive employee, and vice versa, is essential," he says. "Companies can identify the major stressors that people are feeling, as well as the stressors particular to their certain group." He says those can include:

  • Fears related to job security
  • Concern about a healthy and safe working environment
  • Health of family members
  • Stress over distance learning and childcare

Employers should have resources available for counseling for employees and their family members, says Gelbart, adding that employers should watch for lower engagement signs like poor productivity, lateness or absenteeism, and irritability with others.

"While the employer can address the behavior, getting to the root of the symptoms is essential, and an understanding and caring employer can communicate this," he says.

What This Means For You

Employees and employers alike are dealing with the excess stress brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever your situation, it's important to remember that people are struggling right now between health concerns, job changes, school issues, and more.

Be mindful of your coworkers and employees, take time for self-care, and investigate the ways your place of business is providing help and promoting positive adjustments in this difficult time.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Hu J, He W, Zhou K. The mind, the heart, and the leader in times of crisis: How and when COVID-19-triggered mortality salience relates to state anxiety, job engagement, and prosocial behaviorJ Appl Psychol. 2020;105(11):1218-1233. doi:10.1037/apl0000620

  2. Pyszczynski T, Lockett M, Greenberg J, Solomon S. Terror management theory and the COVID-19 pandemicJ Humanist Psychol. 2021;61(2):173-189. doi:10.1177/0022167820959488

By Elizabeth Millard
Elizabeth Millard is a freelance journalist specializing in health, wellness, fitness, and nutrition.