A Deep Dive into How Work Pandemic Protocols Influence Employee Behavior
9th June 2021 • Human Factors Cast Deep Dives • Human Factors Cast
00:00:00 00:15:10

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It's another Wednesday, which means another deep dive! This week we will be diving deeper into how work pandemic protocols influence employee behavior beyond the work environment.

What is Workplace Culture?

Oftentimes job satisfaction comes from how we experience the culture of our workplace. This can take many different forms: some workplaces are very laid back, some are very open and encouraging of new ideas, some are very driven, some leave no room for failure, some are toxic, and most are a mix of these and more. How the attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of those you work with make you feel can have a huge influence on your performance at work and the quality of your personal life.

In general, regardless of the style of your work culture (e.g. traditional, modern, or outside-the-box), there are five elements that are part of a healthy workplace culture:

- Accountability: Everyone is held accountable for their behavior, fostering good teamwork, open communication, trust, and responsibility

- Equity: Recognizing that everyone in the company has value, everyone is given opportunities, and there is no favoritism

- Expression: Everyone is allowed to express their own personal style to some extent

- Communication: Open communication allows for the resolution of issues or concerns, the exchange of feedback, the sharing of ideas, and better collaboration

- Recognition: Recognizing and rewarding employee successes (e.g. through verbal praise or competitive salaries) as well as encouraging employees to use their talents

Having a healthy workplace culture leads to many benefits for both the company and employees. Companies are able to attract better candidates who share their vision and priorities. Employees experience greater happiness and growth. The quality of work goes up. Productivity increases. Employees choose to stay at a company longer, increasing employee retention. The company’s reputation becomes more positive and prestigious.

The culture of your workplace will naturally influence how you feel and behave outside of work. If you dread going into work due to a toxic work environment, you may not be able to sleep well or enjoy your hobbies or time with friends and family, and you may develop mental health issues. If your time at work is pleasant and inspiring, it can encourage you to connect with others, build healthy habits, and spend time on your favorite activities.

Work-life Balance

The work-life balance struggle has been at the forefront of conversations about jobs for the last couple of decades.

A recent series of interviews with mid- and senior-level managers at two global firms found that for those who felt they were able to successfully achieve a good work-life balance, the key was to view the process of finding that balance as a cycle instead of a one-time solution. Our personal and professional lives do not remain static: we take on new tasks, children grow, we or our loved ones experience health challenges, we may move, we may get promoted - or any one of a number of life changes. This means that we must constantly re-evaluate whether or not we currently have a good work-life balance and, if we do not, what we need to do to get to one.

It is important to realize that a good work-life balance does not mean that there is an equal balance between work and the rest of your life; reality is much more complicated than that. Instead, it can be helpful to think of it as finding a healthy way to balance all of the aspects of your life with the goal of avoiding burnout and minimizing stress. Finding this “life balance” is something that everyone can strive for, whether they have a job or not.

Some essential practices to keep in mind when you consider your life balance are:

- Getting enough sleep

- Engaging in physical activity

- Spending time on mental recovery, such as meditation or practicing mindfulness, with the goal to help you regain focus and clarity

- Recovering socially through positive social interactions

- Taking a moment to identify and give thanks for positive, meaningful experiences

How We React to Being Sick

Virtually everyone will get sick at some point in their lives. Poor workplace culture can exacerbate our symptoms or make us feel like we have to prioritize work over our health. As we continue to re-evaluate our life balance, we will need to adjust to accommodate for the sickness we are experiencing so that we can take care of ourselves and get better rather than prolong the illness or make it worse.

When we are sick, we tend to experience exhaustion, stress, and increased negativity. Recent studies have found that the activation of the immune response when you are sick triggers inflammation that mimics the neuroinflammation associated with depression. These and other “invisible” symptoms of sickness (e.g. impaired working memory and ability to pay attention) are often ignored or minimized in favor of the more obvious physical symptoms (e.g. a runny nose, sore throat, or fever).

Research looking at the connection between biology and psychology has shown that psychological stress can increase our chances of getting sick. Another reason to value healthy workplace culture is that enduring interpersonal conflicts and stress at work puts us at a particularly high risk of developing illnesses.

Sickness Presenteeism

As we discussed, sickness presenteeism is continuing to go to work or do other activities while being sick. Despite knowing that when we are sick we should stay home, rest, and do our best to take care of ourselves so that we can have a speedy recovery, many of us decide to go to work anyway.

While some people are quick to notice symptoms of sickness and take the day or two off to recover, others choose to “power through” it for as long as they can. American work culture has long conveyed the message that being sick is no excuse to miss work, as can be seen by the lack of federal laws requiring employers to provide sick leave. There are even articles that provide suggestions on how to work when you are sick. This can also be seen in schools: perfect attendance records are highly praised beginning in preschool.


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It is important to note that for some people it is simply not financially feasible to take time off of work to recover from an illness. The money earned from a day of work can go towards rent, food, gas, a bus ticket, or other essentials. In these particular situations, it is less a matter of desire to go to work while sick and more about needing the financial and social support in place to allow people to make the best choices for themselves and others.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Presenteeism

It is undeniable that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on all of our lives. One key way it has done this is in making us much more self-aware of the impact our sickness can have on others. Over the last year, many states have passed laws mandating employers provide a set amount of sick leave, particularly if an employee is exposed to or contracts COVID-19. Some have even extended the amount of sick leave that employers are required to provide in general, not just when COVID-19 may be involved.

The pandemic has also demonstrated that a healthy workforce is essential for a healthy economy. This is counter to the underlying belief that has pervaded our culture for so long, that work should be prioritized over health. It is probably no surprise that people generally prefer to be healthy rather than sick; during the COVID-19 lockdowns, many workers were let go or quit in the interest of public health. Hospitals, grocery stores, and other essential services faced staffing shortages when workers would come down with the virus or be required to quarantine due to possible exposure. It quickly became clear that prioritizing both employee and public health would be crucial for reopening and building the economy back up in a timely manner.

New Views on Work

One of the most tangible changes to the work environment brought about by COVID-19 is the sharp increase in people working from home (also known as remote work or telecommuting). Recent studies have found that as many as one-third of employees would quit their jobs if they can no longer work remotely once pandemic restrictions are lifted. 11% have already negotiated a permanent option to work from home for their position.

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Although many employers and employees were forced into a working from home situation, it has had the good fortune to mesh nicely with the new attitudes towards sickness that have developed as a result of the pandemic. Remote work allows people to still contribute to their teams even if they are not feeling well enough to go into the office and risk spreading their illness to others. While there is an argument to be made that it would be better to avoid working altogether when one is sick, this provides a compromise between our societal conditioning and our wellness priorities.

With such a rise in telecommuting, researchers are eager to examine the costs and benefits of working from home. So far, studies have found that there are many small but tangible benefits to remote work, with few downsides. These benefits include increased happiness and productivity for people who work from home. Naturally, some jobs are better suited for telecommuting than others and some people will simply prefer keeping their home and work concretely separate by doing little if any work from home. Companies and governments will need to build in more support for remote work and create or modify policies to adjust for this new work model. What we may see is an even larger increase in hybrid work schedules, such as employees working in the office three days out of the workweek and telecommuting for the remaining two days.

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The Human Factors Connection


With remote work being received so favorably, we can predict that we will need to address the challenges it presents and examine how to take advantage of its benefits. Those of us in the human factors field will need to consider how we can help users across all platforms unplug, or at least feel like they are unplugging. This might come in the form of timers, alerts to urge users to take screen breaks, immersing yourself in virtual reality, or deliberately creating “technology-free” areas similar to electronic fences or dead zones.

Virtual collaboration and communication technology are rapidly advancing with the spike in users they have experienced over the past year. This provides ample opportunity for human factors innovation and experimentation in these areas. With the expected continuation of remote work, this will likely be a steady area of research and work for those interested in helping telecommuting employees (or students) work together better.

Loneliness creates similar opportunities: we know of many of the downsides to social media, how can we take what we have learned and meld it with virtual communication tools to help people come together? We recently discussed COVID-19 and cave syndrome, or the fear people have of re-entering society after prolonged isolation, so we know that loneliness is a challenge that extends beyond remote workers. Our deep dive into the topic suggested taking small steps to help ease anxiety around social interactions. Similar thinking can be applied here: how can we build opportunities for interaction into the products, services, and environments we help design?

Human factors knowledge can also help us guide remote workers in their quest to decrease the distractions they deal with at home. We can assist them with designing their work environment to be comfortable, personal while still encouraging productivity, and more separate from (or integrated with) the rest of their home. Suggestions can also be made with how to set up systems to let other household members know when extra quiet time is needed, such as on conference calls, or if they can enter the workspace.

Motivation is an important concept in human factors research and is a big concern for employees and managers alike when it comes to working from home. How can we apply our knowledge of what motivates us to remote work? We might look at how to integrate rewards in products or home work environments, how to break down tasks into smaller challenges to keep workers engaged, or experiment with scheduling and collaboration methods.

Additionally, Zoom fatigue is a very real challenge for telecommuters. We can help by clearly outlining the maximum length for Zoom meetings, when breaks should be taken during virtual meetings, how many Zoom meetings can be scheduled per day before negatively impacting productivity, and how to know when something should be a virtual meeting, email, or a quick message. Fortunately, data is being collected and attitudes are shifting to embrace a decrease in the number of meetings workers must attend, and there is a push for shorter meetings if they are required.

As remote work and the emphasis on health continue, there will be more opportunities to discover how we can leverage both to create better lives for people through the products, services, and environments we help design. It is an exciting and optimistic time to be in human factors (though really, isn’t it always?).

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