Anxious employee
A new U of T Scarborough study finds that health anxiety relating to COVID-19 is negatively impacting workers’ ability to perform their jobs, their relationships at home as well as their physical well-being.
Friday, October 9 - 2020

There is no shortage of anxiety during this global pandemic, but a new U of T study finds there is a surprising but simple coping mechanism that might just help you feel a little better.

“It’s clear from our study there is quite a bit of health anxiety relating to COVID-19,” says John Trougakos, associate professor in the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, who is one of the study’s authors.

“A key concern with this anxiety is emotion suppression. When we bottle up our emotions they don’t go away on their own, and this has detrimental consequences for our interactions at home, our competence at work, and our overall physical health.”

The study, by Trougakos and co-authors Professor Julie McCarthy from the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management, and Nitya Chawla from Texas A&M University, surveyed 503 workers from a broad range of social, educational and employment backgrounds beginning from the first week of when social distancing orders were enacted in March. This included those working from home and essential workers who had to physically go into work.

Workers surveyed reported feeling anxiety about contracting or having COVID-19, and as the researchers point out, one of the major consequences of health anxiety is emotion suppression. Past psychological research has shown that suppressing emotions reduces our ability to perform various tasks by impairing thought-processes, problem-solving and memory. It can also impair our ability to connect socially with others and leave us with a decreased sense of control.  

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, uncovered an interesting coping strategy that participants used in the form of hand washing. In this context, McCarthy explains that hand washing is a form of problem-focused coping, which is essentially doing something proactive to alter the source of the stress, in this case potentially washing the virus from our hands.  

“It’s such a simple thing, but hand-washing can help mitigate the impact of the anxiety because you are being proactive and taking some control over the situation,” she says.

Establishing a sense of control in your life, even with respect to small things, can go far in facilitating resilience.

Emotion suppression also has a negative impact on psychological need fulfillment, which is a type of motivational state. Simply put, it explains the extent to which certain needs are being met in different aspects of your life.

“This may include how effective you feel at your job, or how connected you feel to others. If those needs are being met, you are more likely to engage with your job and reach out to others. On the other hand, if those aren’t being met, you are more likely to withdraw or be less effective in various aspects of your life,” says Trougakos. 

A loss of a sense of control due to the unknown nature of the pandemic is having an effect on workers. The researchers also note that one of the key predictors of people’s well-being is having a say or some control over their own fate. Due to the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, it’s inevitable that people will feel a sense of helplessness.

“Establishing a sense of control in your life, even with respect to small things, can go far in facilitating resilience,” says McCarthy.

Professor Julie McCarthy
Professor Julie McCarthy from the Department of Management at U of T Scarborough is an expert on organizational behaviour and HR management.

“This is critical, as you’re more worn out that affects sleep quality, higher frequency of headaches, increased back and neck pain, slower recovery times, just a host of physical discomforts that can come along with it.”

As fears over a second wave rise and the pandemic shows no signs of subsiding any time soon, McCarthy says other coping strategies may help us mitigate some of the consequences of anxiety. In addition to hand washing, mask wearing, using contact tracing apps or avoiding public gatherings may likewise help.  

The researchers also emphasize the importance of more effective emotion regulation strategies, especially when it comes to suppressing emotions.

The study authors, who are experts in organizational behaviour and HR management, highlight the important role that everyone can play in mitigating anxiety, and this includes partners, parents, organizations and work supervisors.

They recommend training and seminars on topics such as resilience, stress management, and work-life balance – anything that helps workers feel greater autonomy in their lives.

“This is an unprecedented crisis that is causing unprecedented levels of anxiety. It’s important not to be in denial about the negative mental health impacts and instead offer strategies for people to take greater control of their lives,” says Trougakos.