For many employees, economic stress inhibits compliance with guidelines intended to limit the spread of COVID-19.
In March, seeking to control the spread of COVID-19 within their jurisdictions, countries and states ordered businesses closed and asked employees to work from home, if possible. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control developed a list of recommended preventative health behaviors for all Americans, including social distancing, wearing facial coverings in public, frequent handwashing, and limiting non-essential trips from home.
Until there is a vaccine or effective treatments in place, public health experts suggest that these so-called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” are necessary to stem the disease. But not everyone can or will enact these COVID-19 prevention behaviors.
Tahira Probst, professor of psychology at WSU Vancouver and an expert in occupational health psychology, and Hyun Jung Lee, a graduate student in her lab, were curious to know more. Based on her lab’s prior work linking economic stressors (such as job insecurity and financial strain) with workplace safety behaviors, they designed a study to explore the relationship between these stressors and COVID-19 prevention behaviors among employees.
With funds from a WSU Vancouver faculty mini-grant and a Marchionne research fellowship awarded to Lee, they are surveying 780 participants from across the country in seven waves over the next year. Participants answer questions ranging from job insecurity and working arrangements to their health to their views of the CDC guidelines. At the same time, they are compiling data on the different ways in which the states have responded to the pandemic to see how these variables might affect employee behavior as well.
In the first set of analyses, Probst, Lee and Andrea Bazzoli (another graduate student in the Probst lab) tested the hypothesis that job insecurity and financial strain would act as risk factors for lower compliance with the CDC guidelines. They also looked at the severity of state restrictions such as stay-at-home orders and the generosity of the state’s unemployment insurance program, which serves as a safety net in the event of job loss.
In their first paper submitted to the Journal of Applied Psychology, titled “Economic stressors and the enactment of CDC-recommended COVID-19 prevention behaviors: The impact of state-level context,” the authors conclude that employees worried about potential job loss or paying their bills had lower compliance with the guidelines—potentially because economically stressed employees might feel less comfortable requesting to work from home or insisting on social distancing at work.
One thing did make a difference: In states with more robust unemployment benefits, compliance with guidelines was better. State restrictions, however, were another matter.
“Especially in states with extensive COVID-19-related policies, such as stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, school closures, etc., those workers who are financially precarious are less able to follow the CDC guidelines than financially stable workers,” Lee said.
Probst added, “Ironically, state-level policies meant to benefit everyone appear to be most protective in terms of enacting the CDC guidelines for people who are more financially secure.”
The study is designed to address a situation in flux. “We think our current findings may be relevant with policymakers to think about intended as well as unintended effects of COVID-19 state policies, as well as the benefits of having a robust social safety net,” Probst said. In coming months, Probst and Lee will look more closely at company policies and the extent to which companies are enacting COVID-specific workplace safety guidelines and issues of work-life conflict. They hope to inform public policies to address the evolving crisis while also protecting vulnerable employees facing economic stress.