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Pandemic never gave us a chance to really settle down, keeping anxiety levels high, researchers find

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

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Some people have said 2020 was the most stressful year of their lives because of the coronavirus pandemic, and it would be hard to argue with that.

Three faculty members and a doctoral student in the Department of Management at Oklahoma State University wanted to measure daily anxiety levels from February through April 2020. Using three characteristics of COVID-19 as the predictor, co-authors Sherry (Qiang) Fu, Dr. Lindsey Greco, Dr. Anna Lennard and Dr. Nikos Dimotakis asked 262 people to take part in a daily diary study for three weeks, surveying them at morning, noon and after work to see how their anxiety levels changed daily based on the total cases, linear growth and acceleration of COVID-19 cases.

“To describe how each factor affects anxiety, visualize a car going 90 miles per hour (total speed) that is speeding up (linear growth) and speeding up quickly (acceleration). Essentially, someone is punching the gas when you’re already going 90 miles per hour — how anxious does this make you feel?” Greco said of the paper, “Anxiety Responses to the Unfolding COVID-19 Crisis: Patterns of Change in the Experience of Prolonged Exposure to Stressors,” published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Now visualize a car going 90 miles per hour (total speed) that is slowing down (linear growth) relatively slowly (acceleration). So, someone has taken their foot off the accelerator and is letting the car slow naturally. How anxious does this make you feel? Clearly, these are very different experiences. We are looking at similar patterns based on COVID-19 cases.”

The research showed that the total number of cases was more stressful at the beginning of the pandemic. But as the number of positive cases increased, they became less impactful than the pattern of change in COVID cases (linear growth and acceleration).

“If it’s just 10 people every day getting sick, people get used to that over time. It’s similar to being on a treadmill — if I’m walking at the same speed on the treadmill, then I get used to it, and I stop paying attention to it,” she said. “But what happens if you get on a treadmill and all of a sudden you’re running and it stops, or the pace and incline keeps changing? That creates continued anxiety.”

Greco and the OSU researchers found job performance was suffering in workers who experienced continued anxiety related to COVID-19. The implication for managers is that one steady stressor will cause anxiety initially, but the workforce will adjust to it. But when the stressor is constantly changing or management is constantly making changes, workers are never going to get comfortable, increasing anxiety and reducing productivity over time.

“I think the big takeaway for us is that we can get used to stress,” Greco said. “Stressors aren’t necessarily bad — they might be at the beginning until you get used to them — but when the stressors are changing a lot or things are getting worse, then you’re going to continue to have anxiety over time.”

In related research, Greco and co-authors David Huntsman, postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Albany, SUNY, and Dale Li, assistant professor of emergency management at OSU, are exploring how firefighters cope with stressors during the pandemic. In collaboration with the Fire and Emergency Management program in the OSU College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology, they are collecting data from numerous fire departments across the United States.

“Obviously, they have very stressful jobs, and we think it applies to not only firefighters but emergency workers broadly,” Greco said.

Similar to the Journal of Applied Psychology study, the research team is studying stress related to exposure to the coronavirus and constantly changing information related to dealing with the coronavirus as the pandemic spread across the nation in 2020.

“The worry of getting sick has often been less stressful for the firefighters compared to the management side of it, specifically the constantly changing protocols such as what protective equipment you need to wear or the protocols for social distancing within fire stations,” Greco said.

Greco and her peers found that the pandemic has had a negative effect on station culture and firefighters’ usual lifestyles. For example, after a terrible car accident or deadly house fire, the crew would normally return to the station, hang out and chat with each other, debriefing in their own way. In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, many stations prohibited such fraternizing.

“Their coping strategies often rely on informal peer support systems, and a lot of the changes that came down from management in dealing with COVID-19 broke those systems up,” she said. “These managerial changes negatively affected the station culture and camaraderie in a way that made their job much harder and made it harder for them to cope with the stressful events from their jobs.”

Story By: Terry Tush | Discover@Spears Magazine

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