Morale During the Pandemic, and How to Raise It
When morale is high, we pursue better outcomes. We need this now more than ever.
Posted May 29, 2020
As parts of society enter into phase one or two of re-entry, scientists and physicians remind us that it’s important to continue to be careful; to distance ourselves, to wash our hands, to wear masks, and not to linger in social spaces where we can’t do these things. We don’t know when this will end and we’re weary of restrictions. For many, sheltering in place has become difficult at best and nearly impossible at worst.
Researchers exploring the psychological phenomenon of isolation in space and submarine travel as well as Arctic research centers have identified a Third Quarter Phenomenon (TQP) that emerges when people are almost three-quarters of the way through their prescribed period of social isolation. Irritability, agitation, depressed mood, and low morale are all characteristics of TQP and appear to be present until the end of isolation is in sight.
Given that our current global reality reflects a populace demonstrating obvious signs of TQP while also having no clear idea of when quarantine will eventually fully end, it’s crucial that we begin to address the psychological components inherent to TQP. Since morale has the potential of helping individuals and communities rally and improve or passively “quit” and decline, it seems that this is a good place to start.
Morale, in the research, has been discussed most often in regards to culture, classrooms, and corporate vocational settings. Morale refers, loosely, to the emotional climate of a group of people living or working together or tied together by a sense of a shared past or project. Generally, when people feel comfortable with the setting they are in and people they are with and have a purpose that aligns with their values, they have positive morale. When these conditions are not met, morale is low.
We see this with sports teams and theatrical casts. When there’s a goodness of fit between people and purpose, morale is high which spurs excellence. When these dynamics are off, morale drops. In studies evaluating workplace morale, those teams reporting high morale were two times more likely to be thriving in the non-work parts of their lives while the low morale teams dreaded workdays and were two times more likely to be diagnosed with depression. In studies of military personnel, high morale was correlated with cultural empathy, open-mindedness, social initiative, emotional stability, and flexibility.
It’s fair to say that global morale is low. We are tired, our initiative is waning, and we are emotionally dysregulated. Making matters worse, the radical political divide over how to move forward together has our empathy, open-mindedness, and flexibility on short supply. If we are going to continue to stop COVID in its path, we need the kind of morale that inspires teamwork and excellence. To achieve this, we all need to tend to our own personal morale as well as that of our communities. Here are some ideas to help this happen.
- Get (and maintain) some perspective. Remember that the discomfort we experience while delaying gratification is the sign that we are being part of a global solution. As humans, we have lived through incredibly difficult times. If we face adversity and hardship with an eye toward what it is taking from us, our morale will be low. If instead, we redirect our attention to the ways in which our shared actions are making a powerful difference, our suffering suddenly gains merit and value. When we let it, hardship cultivates resilience, which is a trait that benefits us greatly.
- Recognize your power and take responsibility for it. It is impossible to take in the news and not experience many big feelings. It’s up to each of us, however, to name and work through our emotions before they become toxic to us or others. This requires a pause between taking information in and deciding what to do with it. If a news story incites anger or fear, take a few moments to process, making conscious and deliberate efforts to discern how to move forward. Avoiding this crucial step often leaves us spreading our fear and anger in ways that do more harm than good.*
- Start with your personal morale. Do an inventory of the actions and settings in your life that improve your sense of morale and capability and those that lessen them. Set some boundaries around actions that bring you down. Create pre-set times each day to do a brain/feeling dump, to process with a friend, or to stretch and breathe. After doing this, redirect your attention to the things you are grateful for. Privilege self-soothing for part of a day, eat food that refuels your body, get some exercise, and participate in an activity you love. Make these actions part of a weekly routine designed to keep your morale high.
- Encourage community morale. Pep rallies work because they bring people together for a common cause: that of building communal energy. Find some simple ways of doing this in your circle of connection and beyond. Post encouraging words in your window or in chalk on the sidewalk for walkers to notice. Place some books, puzzles, or games you’re ready to part with on a blanket near the sidewalk with a “please take” sign (include some bleach wipes if you have them). Install a community art gallery by stringing fishing line between trees, inviting people to use clothespins to add their own art and poetry. Schedule a half-hour Zoom visit with a child so their parent can take a shower or hire a local chef to teach a Zoom cooking class for your community. Get creative and stay creative in this regard. We need this now more than ever.
*This is not to say that anger or fear are “bad” emotions. Both can be powerful motivators to take action when it is needed. Fear and anger are the geneses of many important nonviolent social justice movements. For those that are effective, however, ample time is spent discerning how to parlay these emotions into strategic action and reform. To respond to anger or fear by simply spreading does not equal responsible action; instead, it leads to poor morale.
Linda K. Johnsrud, Ronald H. Heck, Vicki J. Rosser. (2000) Morale Matters. The Journal of Higher Education 71:1, pages 34-59.