News consumption has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic as people try to make sense of the constantly evolving situation. However, there is evidence that consuming a significant amount of negative news can be anxiety-provoking and negatively affect mental health. How does this affect workers’ ability to be engaged at work during the pandemic?
Schulich School of Business organization studies Professor Winny Shen and her collaborators, Stephanie Andel from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and Maryana Arvan from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, set out to answer this question.
“Early on during the pandemic, the World Health Organization came out with recommendations that people should limit their consumption of news related to COVID-19 to just one to two times per day and from trusted news sources, and this really caught our attention,” says Shen.
Consider a worker who cannot stop watching the news because the number of cases in their community is rising. This worker is likely to feel significant anxiety due to their continued consumption of news, as the media tends to use attention-grabbing headlines to get us to keep tuning in or clicking on online articles. This anxiety may then interfere with workers’ ability to get absorbed in and mentally devote themselves to their work, as worrying may leave them with little energy or serve as an intrusive distraction when working. Workers may also differ in the extent to which their anxiety detracts from their work engagement.
In their new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, Shen and her collaborators examine relationships between COVID-19 news consumption, anxiety, work engagement and occupational calling by following a sample of 281 Canadian workers over a period of eight weeks during the first wave of the pandemic. They found that on weeks where workers watched more news than usual, they experienced greater anxiety, and consequently lower work engagement; however, workers who felt called to their job because it provides them a sense of purpose and fulfillment were able to maintain high levels of work engagement even when they felt highly anxious. Moreover, workers who were more engaged with their job in a given week generally experienced lower anxiety the following week.
“We’ve all heard a lot about the many difficulties of working during the pandemic,” says Shen. “Our study points to the fact that being engaged in their work can be beneficial for many workers, perhaps by helping them replenish or gain important resources, which can then help them manage their stress and anxiety.” Shen also acknowledges that this benefit does not seem to occur for everyone. The study finds that for workers who are drawn to their work because it allows them to help others, high levels of work engagement does not seem to pay off by reducing subsequent feelings of anxiety. This suggests that these workers may be particularly vulnerable during the pandemic, as their anxiety or investment in their work may tend to make them feel like they are not doing enough.
“With everything going on, many companies are worried about engagement during the pandemic,” says Shen. “Our work suggests that in order to promote an engaged workforce, companies should try to help their workers find personal fulfillment, joy and purpose in the work that they are doing.”