- By Ian Bradley
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In the midst of our coronavirus pandemic, it is interesting to speculate about the long-term psychological consequences of the virus and our current coping such as social distancing and hand hygiene. As a psychologist with a specialty in workplace issues, most of my observations focus on this area.
Firstly, long gone are the heroic images of employees tied to their desks come hell or high water. I grew-up with the iron man notion of “unless you’re dying, go to work.” In fact, one hospital employer even rewarded me financially for unused “sick days.” No longer!
At this point, even an allergenic induced sneeze elicits fear and consternation from strangers, yet alone co-workers. Respected psychologists are now informing clients not to come to their office if they are sick, while simultaneously pledging to skype if they themselves feel under the weather. All this has produced a novel demand for self-disclosure of illnesses, or at least illness symptoms- information that was previously in the private domain.
As a corollary, working from home will probably gain more credibility and acceptance both from employees and bosses alike. The advantages of working from home are numerous for the company, employees and the environment. Companies can search and acquire talent from afar and utilize that talent as needed. I have numerous high-tech clients who hire developers and marketing experts on such a basis. Employers save on everything from real estate and office space costs while increasing their talent pool. Recent surveys reveal that most employees would want to work from home, in fact in one survey 36% of employees would choose the ability to work from home over a pay-raise! Needless to say, reduced commuting costs helps save the planet.
Recent software developments will continue to foster this trend as witnessed by the increasing spate of emails in my university inbox account where debates about rival software packages to for on-line teaching or lab collaboration are hot topics. Sadly, or not, the only thing going up in my portfolio is Zoom!
Ironically, this push to telecommuting might facilitate several messages that I consistently try to deliver to companies and managers – give employees discretion in how their work should be completed and keep track of results not hours. Coronavirus might succeed to drive this message home.
My TV viewing has also sparked hopes that coronavirus will succeed in fostering functional cooperation between levels of government know more for posturing rather than collaboration. I refer to the apparent teamwork between Republicans and Democrats on a fiscal and sick-leave package, and in my country to the federal and provincial cooperation in economic and health care areas. The view of the private sector might also be seen in better light with government-industry (eg; Google) cooperation in virus testing as well as advances in lab assessment automation, therapeutics and vaccines. In my view, all these changes are positive.
Finally, a professsional observation on the perception of fear: It is true that our behavioural routines have changed and will probably continue to be constrained over the next weeks or months. These changes affect all aspects of our lives from work to socializing. The changes have been imposed, they are required as the epidemiologists say “ to flatten the curve” but they are life-changing and isolating.
However, the magnitude of the behavioural change does not necessarily reflect the magnitude of the objective danger. James Freeman’s article “March without Madness in the today’s Wall Street Journal has this perspective grounding quote:
“Since the coronavirus first appeared in China in the latter part of 2019, it has killed nearly 5,100 people around the world. During that same time period, more than 10 million people in the world have died of other things.”
It is well documented in psychology, that fearful ideas and emotional reactions are often secondary products of observing our own behaviour. The psychological mechanisms of both cognitive dissonance and attribution stem from an initial observation of our own behaviour. In clinical practice, phobic individuals who observe their persistent avoidance of fear engendering situations typically believe that facing that fearful situation would be traumatic; often that isn’t the case. Similarly, when we observe our own changed routines, we might as well conclude that the objective danger is equally massive.
There is an important nuance. Yes, our lives have dramatically changed with the social, work and travel restrictions. It is civically prudent to follow these restrictions but objective data indicate that the personal danger is remote, and even more remote, if we comply.
And when the coronavirus pandemic ends, the world of work might be somewhat better.