Wellbeing and Engagement Paradox during COVID-19
“Man dies of covid, doctor son treating him back at work in 3 days”. We marvel at the doctor who came back to work in the hospital right after his father passed away and mother and brother were still in the ICU. This demonstrates an exemplary example of work engagement and dedication. But what about the doctor’s wellbeing?
Generally speaking, wellbeing and engagement at work are directly proportional to each other. Greater wellbeing is related to better engagement at work and vice-versa. However, Gallup noted this wellbeing and engagement paradox in an article in March 2021 when this relationship seemed to go awry with the onset of pandemic and subsequently a dramatic change in the work situation. According to the Gallup polls, people reported high levels of stress and worry and at the same time high levels of work engagement. Pandemic related challenges were noted for all people whether they were married, with kids, or single. Parents experienced exhaustion taking care of their children, working, and managing their houses and single people experienced loneliness and isolation. These challenges were higher for people working from home compared to on-site workers.
Even as the stress levels were high for all sections of the population, work engagement also was high both in the US and globally since 2020 according to these Gallup polls. This high work engagement was described as a ‘life raft’ to tide over the stress of the pandemic. This improved work engagement was attributed to several factors, including getting meaningful feedback from their managers on a more regular basis compared to 2019. Engagement with managers was found to be critical in determining team engagement.
An important lesson put forward by this Gallup article on the wellbeing and work engagement paradox is the need to make sure that you do not ignore that highly engaged employees could have low levels of wellbeing. The polls showed that people working remotely showed both high levels of stress and worry and high levels of engagement compared to on-site workers. The company may benefit from the high work engagement of the employees but at the risk of potential burnout of employees who continue to face challenges in the Covid situation.
Is work by itself an effective coping method?
Some individuals tend to use work as a coping mechanism to counteract stress or trauma. In some cases, workaholics tend to use work to cope with the trauma they are facing in their lives. A trauma survivor and workaholic said, “For me, working all the time and being in constant motion is one way to avoid thinking about how I’m feeling,” she says.” It gives people a sense of control of what they can do, and this is especially relevant in the current pandemic situation, when we feel helpless and out of control. Since working by itself has a positive connotation and is widely celebrated, people do not feel the need to seek help for workaholism, which can be detrimental for overall well being.
Work may help people heal too as is evident in the large number of similar examples of people who turned out to help others during this pandemic. The eudaimonic aspect of wellbeing (“feel purpose”) is possibly fulfilled with meaningful work as in the case of the doctors and healthcare workers returning to work right after traumatic events in their own lives, but is it a temporary band-aid or distraction from the event? Right after a traumatic event, people are often in shock or a state of denial and they may choose not to talk about it or bottle up their feelings. In fact, it was noted that frontline medical workers were averse to seeking psychological help in the current scenario in India. This avoidance and numbing of feelings are symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotional numbing is also associated with developing depression. High levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms were found in young adults in the US last year during the Covid-19 pandemic. In another study conducted in the workplace in Japan during the same time, the number of workplace measures taken to respond to Covid-19 were positively associated with fear of the virus, probably due to the highlighting of the awareness of the risks involved. In other words, greater the number of measures adopted by the company, a higher level of global fear of Covid was noted. At the same time, these measures were associated with low levels of psychological distress and high job performance. This relationship is not as straightforward again, as individuals have reported experiencing mixed emotions (positive and negative) in the wake of the pandemic more commonly than pure negative emotions.
What is the solution for this paradox?
There is a lot of evidence that shows the importance of breaks during work to counteract stress as well as improve job performance. Time is needed to replenish resources after work whether it is for a short period of minutes or hours (e.g., microbreaks) or longer in terms of days or weeks (weekends and vacations). If these breaks involve positive reflection about work (thinking about the positive aspects of one’s work), it is associated with higher levels of wellbeing and job performance and it is the opposite with negative reflection about work. If one is not able to disengage from work during these breaks, it could lead to exhaustion, negative moods, and poorer work performance. Breaks of any length with relaxation are linked to improvements in wellbeing, including positive mood, vigour, and less fatigue. Organizational factors like high workload and long work hours can prevent recovery during these breaks and affect the wellbeing of employees. These long work hours may impact the choice of the employees in their selection of a relaxing activity which may be more sedentary (e.g., watching television) and less healthy compared to physical exercise as the employers do not have enough physical energy left to engage in the latter.
In the current pandemic scenario, a lot of employees have reported longer work hours from their usual pre-lockdown on-site work days. The longer number of hours spent at work may seem to improve their productivity and work performance but leaves them with less time and energy for breaks to replenish themselves. Research at Wharton showed that personal productivity of people improved during the pandemic as they were “able to hunker down and get less distracted while working remotely” but it also impacted their sense of purpose at work.
This relationship of work engagement and wellbeing in the current context is not the same and as straightforward in the current unprecedented context as it was in the pre-pandemic context. So, while focusing on wellbeing, it may not be necessary to highlight work engagement simultaneously. It is perhaps important to focus on wellbeing in the immediate context first as people continue to face multiple challenges on the personal front in the face of the virus and then address work engagement as the situation improves.