Research Reveals the Psychological Toll of COVID-19 on Employed Workers

Christina Zurek
Christina Zurek

Stressed employee at work

Following three months of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in America, we’re seeing glimmers of a return to normalcy—or to our “next normal,” at least. While most organizations have stabilized from crisis-management mode, many questions still remain. Most are tactical, like when and how to execute the return to co-located workspaces for a rapidly-transitioned mobile workforce. Or how we’ll continue to preserve the safety of our front-line, essential workers in a less socially distant world.

And while preparations for the tactical return to operations are important to a successful recovery, equally important (but more discreetly discussed) is the psychological impact of the pandemic on workers. Inherently, we know mental health for most people right now is compromised. Everyone is feeling a host of emotions that are often changing by the moment: waves of stress, optimism, anxiety and gratitude to name a few. And we also inherently know how important it is for leaders and peers to show care and concern for colleagues.

Yet, nearly 40% of employees recently surveyed say their company hasn’t even asked how they’re doing since the pandemic began. So we did.

In late May, we set out to better understand the emotional weight of the COVID-19 pandemic on employees. We wanted to know how, three months in, the crisis is impacting them and also lean in to the principles of social psychology and motivational theory to forecast what their experiences will mean for organizational recovery. Most importantly, we wanted to find out what organizations can do (right now) to help their people more effectively.

The data has just come in. Read on for several preliminary insights and sign up below for the full report that we developed.

The Negative Impact of COVID-19 on Worker’s Lives Is Undeniable

  • When asked about how the pandemic has impacted their current life situation, most currently employed workers feel they have been negatively impacted (68.4%).

Employees response based on optimism and positivity

  • Interestingly, respondents still working on-site for their employer reported more positive impact than those working off-site (28.8% versus 19.6%). The top reasons shared by on-site workers for this positive impact included improved financial circumstances, more time at home and with family in off hours and a greater appreciation for what they do have in life.

Yet, Workers Are Resilient & Generally Optimistic

  • Feelings of gratitude for family time, their own health, their personal relationships and jobs and optimism about a return to normalcy are supporting positive emotions among workers despite the widespread challenges the pandemic has created. Most (81%) agree that they’re feeling mostly good about life. We also saw similar differences in belief that life is mostly good right now among those working on-site (86%) vs. off-site (73%).
  • More than half of workers are optimistic about the future as well. 68% of respondents agree that they feel positively about the future, with just 13% disagreeing that they feel positively about the future.

Chart Based on How Workers Feel About Current Life Situation

  • This positivity and optimism reflect underlying resiliency as those surveyed are also realistic and understand that a return to normalcy is months—if not years—out.

Responses based on question: Approximately how much longer do you feel it will be before things go back to normal?

Personal Contribution Rankings from Employees

Employee Fears Are Rooted in Physical & Emotional Wellness Versus Financial Needs

  • When asked to rate their level of concern regarding various issues, the health and emotional wellbeing of their communities, families and themselves were of highest concern. Of less concern were financial needs, such as potential job loss and the ability to provide for their families and pay bills.
  • Very little distinction in rankings was present when comparing workers with on-site vs. off-site positions for this topic.

Responses Based on When We Will Go Back to Normal

Expectations & Goals Are Clear, but Acknowledgement & Motivation Are Needed

  • The need to align people around a shared purpose and mission is especially critical in times of disruption and respondents indicate generally strong levels of understanding in these areas. However, the need for positive reinforcement is also a significant psychological need that boosts resiliency, positivity and motivation. Among eleven different measures of engagement we asked about, it is significant that the four measures related to acknowledgement of personal contribution were the lowest ranked. This represents a significant opportunity for organizations to step forward and support the psychological needs of validation and approval, particularly from the leadership level.

Scale of Concern for Needs

In our preliminary findings, two themes really stood out:

  • Most workers are resilient and maintaining positivity and optimism despite the widespread challenges the pandemic presents to emotional wellbeing. Helping them to maintain these productive emotional states will be critical to a successful operational recovery.
  • There are still things organizations and leaders can do to further support workers right now. The need for recognition, collaboration, autonomy and a sense of purpose to anchor to has never been more important. It’s clear from the research that opportunity exists to psychologically support your people as they continue to weather this turbulent time.

To receive a free copy of the report, including in-depth findings that delve more deeply in to these trends and segment variances, sign up here.

employee sentiment research report

Christina Zurek

Christina Zurek

Christina is an experienced leader with a passion for improving the employee experience, employee engagement and workplace culture. Few things excite her as much as an opportunity to try something unfamiliar (be that a project, development opportunity, travel destination, food, drink or otherwise), though digging in to a research project is a close second.