How Your Perspective on the Pandemic Affects Your Well-Being

Research suggests that COVID's impact is based on our perception of it.

Posted Feb 26, 2021

We are almost to a full year of living in a COVID-infected world. Not only has the pandemic had major medical and economic implications, but it also has impacted individuals psychologically and emotionally. In this interview, Hannes Zacher shares his research on what the onset of the pandemic has done for our well-being based on our response and perspective to the outbreak.

Hannes Zacher, used with permission
Source: Hannes Zacher, used with permission

Hannes Zacher is a professor of work and organizational psychology at Leipzig University in Germany. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Giessen in 2009 and subsequently worked in academic positions in Australia and the Netherlands. In his research program, he investigates aging and career development, occupational health and well-being, and proactive and adaptive work behavior. His research is well supported through competitive grants and industry funding. Together with Dr. Cort W. Rudolph (Saint Louis University), he received a major grant from Volkswagen Foundation to conduct a longitudinal study across two years on the COVID-19 pandemic, work, and well-being.  

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Hannes Zacher: We initially wanted to conduct a large-scale longitudinal survey study to investigate the role of work conditions and leadership for successful aging and health, with four measurement points across nine months. The first two surveys took place as planned, in December 2019 and March 2020. More than 1,500 full-time employees from all over Germany, who were representative in terms of age, gender, and industry, initially participated in our study.

As the COVID-19 pandemic gained momentum in Germany and worldwide in March 2020, we decided to adapt our study and to collect survey data at the beginning of every month. To understand how a major crisis influences people and their social and work environment, we dropped some of the original questions and instead added questions on participants’ experiences and behaviors related to the COVID-19 pandemic to each monthly survey.

My collaborator Dr. Cort W. Rudolph (based at Saint Louis University) and I also applied for funding to continue the longitudinal study until the end of 2021, and the Germany-based Volkswagen Foundation (which is independent of the car manufacturer) fortunately enabled us to do so. At the beginning of March 2021, we are collecting the 14th survey and a large proportion of the initial participants are still part of the study.

JA: What was the focus of your study?

HZ: Our focus is on full-time employees from various industries and how they experience and deal with the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. We were particularly interested in how participants’ health and well-being changed due to the pandemic, including the first national “lockdown” in Germany between mid-March and early May 2020.

We focused on life satisfaction as well as positive and negative mood as established indicators of subjective well-being. In addition, we wanted to know how people’s appraisals of the pandemic, for instance, as a challenge or as a threat, and their coping strategies to deal with the pandemic, including more or less functional ones, are associated with their well-being.

A unique characteristic of our study is that we collected survey data from employees several months before the pandemic gained momentum in Germany, as early as December 2019, and then throughout the early stages of the pandemic. In the published study, we included data from December 2019 to May 2020. By now, we have followed up on participants at the beginning of every month and we are planning to continue the study until the end of 2021. In contrast to the many studies that started only during the pandemic, our study design allows us to examine how the pandemic and the various measures implemented by government and organizations actually change people’s well-being and behavior. 

JA: What did you discover in your study?

HZ: The results of our study showed that, on average, life satisfaction, positive mood, and negative mood did not change in the time period before the pandemic gained momentum in Germany, that is, between early December 2019 and early March 2020. However, between March 2020 and May 2020, all three indicators of subjective well-being decreased on average.

This suggests that the onset of the pandemic, and particularly the first national “lockdown” in Germany between mid-march and early May 2020 led to lower life satisfaction and positive mood, but also, surprisingly, to lower negative mood. People who perceived the pandemic crisis as a controllable challenge, dealt actively with problems, and attempted to see changes in a positive way, had higher life satisfaction and a more positive mood during the early stages of the pandemic.

In contrast, people who perceived the pandemic as central to their well-being and as a threat reported lower life satisfaction and positive mood. People who perceived the pandemic as central and as a threat, who perceived it as uncontrollable, and who engaged in denial, substance use, and self-blame had higher negative moods.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting? 

HZ: A surprising finding was that the average changes in subjective well-being outcomes during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and due to the first national “lockdown” were relatively small in size. This suggests that, for the whole sample, well-being declined during this time. However, there were also strong individual differences — some people’s well-being did not change at all, and other people’s well-being even improved during this time. Our study shows that these differences depend on how people perceive and deal with the pandemic.

Another surprising finding was that negative mood decreased, not increased during the early stages of the pandemic. A possible explanation for this finding is that people did not feel more of the high-arousal negative emotions that we measured, such as anger or irritation, but lower-arousal emotions such as feeling tired or sad. 

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19?

HZ: Our findings suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic represents not only a major medical and economic crisis, but also has a psychological dimension, as it can be associated with declines in key facets of people’s subjective wellbeing. Our findings imply that to experience higher well-being, people should try to perceive the pandemic as a controllable challenge and not as an uncontrollable threat. Moreover, they should use corresponding coping strategies, such as solving problems, seeing the opportunities in the crisis, and avoiding dysfunctional behaviors such as alcohol and drug use or denial. Psychological practitioners could address potential declines in subjective well-being with their clients and attempt to enhance clients’ general capability to use functional stress appraisals and effective coping strategies.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share?

HZ: Our longitudinal study is ongoing, and we will collect the 14th survey at the beginning of March. We are currently working on a paper that examines changes in family demands and satisfaction with family life during the pandemic, and the role of young children and partners. We have published another study on the role of personality differences in the perceived stressfulness of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this study, we show that more extraverted and more neurotic people experience higher levels of COVID-related stress than more introverted and emotionally stable people. In addition, together with co-authors from different universities in the United States and Europe, we have published a paper on the implications of pandemics for research and practice in industrial and organizational psychology. Finally, Dr. Cort W. Rudolph and I have written a paper that cautions against the declaration and labeling of a “COVID-19 Generation,” as this might lead to stereotypes and discrimination.

References

Zacher, H., & Rudolph, C. W. (2021). Individual differences and changes in subjective wellbeing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. American Psychologist, 76(1), 50–62. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/amp0000702