Employees’ sense of normalcy bounces back fast amidst the throes of COVID-19 stress, new research finds

The human body never fails to surprise us with its remarkable resilience.

A team of researchers have found that even amid the turmoil, uncertainty and stress brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, and the new pressures arising from telecommuting and home-schooling, millions of people were able to keep calm and carry on with the demands of the moment.

Research forthcoming in the Journal of Applied Psychology, co-authored by the team from Singapore Management University (SMU), University of Maryland, University of Southern California and University of Florida, shows that the human sense of normalcy is capable of bouncing back a lot faster than we might think.

The study, Getting Back to the 'New Normal': Autonomy Restoration During a Global Pandemic, shows that psychological recovery can take place even while a person is still in the throes of a stressful experience.

The study began on 16 March 2020, just as stay-at-home orders and school closures went into effect across U.S. cities and states. It was just days after the World Health Organization's March 11 declaration that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status. The timing meant that researchers had a unique opportunity to study the very early days of the crisis.

The researchers surveyed 122 employees in 41 community colleges across the United States several times each day for two weeks to explore how they experienced the pandemic. They focused on two manifestations of normalcy - specifically powerlessness and authenticity. They found that on the first day of the study, just as the crisis was beginning, employees initially felt very powerless and inauthentic, however, over the course of even just those two weeks, normalcy started to return. People felt less powerless and more authentic - even while their subjective stress levels were rising.

The finding is important, as it suggests that humans can establish a new normal even while feeling stressed and worried. It is also significant, as previous research has suggested that recovery processes start only after stressors abate and can take months or even years to unfold.

SMU Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources Michael Schaerer, who was a co-author of the research, commented, “Our psychological immune system is so effective that we start to regain our autonomy almost immediately even as we live through an unprecedented and ongoing stressor. And the remarkable resilience of humans in face of unparalleled challenges is illustrated by the pace at which we bounced back from such shocks to our system.”

In fact, the research found that the effect was more pronounced for more neurotic individuals - people who tend to be more nervous, anxious, depressed, self-conscious and vulnerable. Those employees had a more extreme initial reaction to the stress, but then recovered at a faster rate. This is likely because employees high in neuroticism are better psychologically equipped to navigate stressful situations and, consequently, bounce back from it quicker.

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