Psychological Impacts of Life in the Second half of the COVID-19 Pandemic
OVER THE PEAK, BUT NOT OVER THE PAIN
Rachel Lewis, Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Affinity Health at Work and Birkbeck, University of London
As many locations start to get over the peak of the pandemic, some of us are finding that the pain is not over as we start to transition out of isolation. On the contrary, many employees may be experiencing higher levels of irritation and frustration with others and deeper negative moods than during lockdown. Research cites similar findings from individuals working under isolated, confined and extreme (ICE) conditions, including astronauts and submariners. It has been termed the ‘third quarter phenomenon’ as it was found to begin at the one-half mark and be centred near the two-thirds mark.
It is also referred to as the ‘winter-over syndrome’ ; resulting in a cluster of symptoms that occur after the mid-point of a polar expedition and include sleep disturbance, impaired cognition, negative affect and interpersonal conflict. Although recent reviews have found little evidence for the ‘quarter effect’, what is supported is the difference in emotional experience, and increase in low mood, frustration and conflict in the second half, compared to the first half of isolation. It is important to note that this is not about the actual time spent in isolation, but rather relative time.
Although the physical context of our experience of the COVID-19 pandemic is very different to that of astronauts and submariners, we have a number of shared experiences. For instance, employees have had to adapt quickly to a new environment, being separated from wider family groups and friends, whilst being in close proximity to a small number of people. And there has been the need to cope with threat and danger around the pandemic whilst dealing with personal and job-related or financial uncertainty.
THE FIRST HALF EXPERIENCE
It is important to remember what the workforce have already been through. Many have likened the psychological experience of the first half of our pandemic experience, one of full lockdown, to stages of the Kubler-Ross grief model; moving from denial, to anger, frustration, bargaining and acceptance.
THE SECOND HALF EXPERIENCE
Why, when it could be argued we have got through the worst, does the second half feel harder? Psychological theory suggests a number of explanations for this phenomenon.
We don’t have a clear goal to work towards. In the first half of the pandemic, we were motivated by a shared goal to either flatten the peak of the pandemic, or pass the peak. Goal setting theory shows that we are more likely to be motivated to achieving a goal if that goal satisfies a number of conditions. The goal relating to passing/flattening the pandemic peak satisfied all these conditions. It was a challenging but achievable goal; we were committed to it (enhanced by the focus on protecting our health service and loved ones), it was specifically articulated as to what we had to do, and we received feedback on how well we were doing (this was communicated on all media channels on a daily basis). Since the peak however, there is no longer a specific or challenging goal that we are working towards. We have also realised that despite achieving our goal, there is huge uncertainty about how long we will continue to experience isolation, and what will happen in the coming months.
We are running on empty. Conservation of Resources theory explains that we need to keep ‘fuel in our tank’ to maintain our healthy psychological functioning. The two types of fuel, termed resources, we need to stay healthy are physical and psychological. If we run low on one, we can ‘fill’ up on the other. In the first half of the pandemic, although we lost many of the physical resources we relied upon such as contact with friends and family, many focused on compensating for this by building new psychological resources – for instance creating new ways to engage with others, and building and developing new resources such as hobbies and skills. However, evidence also shows that in the first half, feeling capable and motivated, we worked longer hours and took fewer breaks, further depleting our resources.
Employees are now finding that the impact of working at peak level has taken its toll and that both their emotional and physical ‘fuel’ is low - effectively meaning many are ‘running on empty’. Moreover, many of the resources that were put in place initially (such as zoom dinners and quizzes with friends; and proactively engaging in recreational activities) to top up, have tailed off and lost their ‘novelty’ or utility. Given this, the theory follows that it is no wonder that many employees are feeling exhausted.
We are overwhelmed by the ‘noise’ post-lockdown. In lockdown, our environmental and cognitive stimulation was reduced as a result of physical restrictions. Since lockdown restrictions have started to ease, the amount of stimulation we are experiencing has increased. We are suddenly experiencing more traffic, noise and people. We are also having to juggle and process a complex range of decisions such as school returns, holidays, social life and return to work. Many employees will be dealing with conflicting emotions of excitement and anticipation for change, along with anxiety, depression and dread. This overload in cognitive stimulation makes it harder to concentrate, problem solve and remember at the moment, contributing to further feelings of overwhelm and disorientation. It will take time for employees to adapt from lockdown to a new way of life.
WHAT THEN CAN WE DO TO EASE OUR PSYCHOLOGICAL PATH THROUGH THE SECOND STAGE?
Create new goals.
- Create small, realistic and specific goals for yourself
- Think achievable and enjoyable personal goals and plans that are within your control, such as exercise goals or planning social activities (even if they have to be remote)
- Weekly or monthly goals give you a feeling of accomplishment and achievement.
Conserve and build your emotional resources.
- Take your annual leave even if you are not going away
- Revisit your work routine to make sure that you are taking breaks during the day
- Employ boundary management techniques, such as starting and finishing work at a set time
- Make time for those activities and coping techniques that you employed in the ‘honeymoon’ period such as connecting with friends and colleagues.
Be kind to yourself.
- Recognise that it is normal to find this whole situation hard and that you will have good days and bad days
- Acknowledge what you are achieving and lower your expectations of yourself as your mental, emotional, social and physical resources are depleted
- If you are struggling to concentrate, take notes and come back to it another time.
And finally, it might help to know that there will be psychological pay off in the end. Studies from ICE individuals (Norris, 2020) have found that those who have experienced isolation are more likely to live a life according to their personal values, are more likely to be self-sufficient and resilient, and, particularly in the case of women, are likely to emerge more confident in their abilities. While we may have some way yet before we move beyond the pandemic, and whilst we acknowledge that the world and ourselves will be changed as a result; there is comfort in the thought that the transformation may represent personal, organisational and societal growth.