How Fear Threatens Our COVID-19 Safety Response, and How to Overcome It

By Michael Tkach, PsyD, Chief Operating Officer & Chief Behavioral Health Officer, Affinity Empowering
Twitter: @AffinityRTW

Everyone experienced a variety of emotional reactions at the onset of the pandemic. Disbelief. Fear. Anxiety. The pandemic dramatically changed life as we knew it, as masks became commonplace, work shifted to the living room, and social interactions were but a thing of the past. These restrictions were implemented to protect people, and, as a consequence, completely changed how people engaged in their professional lives.

Some workplaces are unable to operate remotely, requiring creative thinking to implement long-term safety protocols. However, as many soon found, widespread behavioral changes are difficult to enforce. Common strategies, like posting signs, holding meetings, and relying on media to convey the message, can only go so far.

The motivations for complying with these policies are subtly different for employers and employees. Employers want to ensure the safety of the workforce and meet company productivity goals. Employees want to stay healthy, fearing what might happen to them or their families if someone catches COVID-19.

Although fear can inspire short-term behavioral change, there is not much support for it as an effective long-term motivator.

Fear as a Short-Term Motivator
Fear has been long understood as an effective short-term motivator. It is not uncommon for someone to have an immediate behavioral change following a confrontation with a perceived dangerous situation.

If, for example, someone who is otherwise healthy receives a diagnosis of chronic heart disease, it is not uncommon for that person to immediately respond by changing diet, exercise patterns, and other related behaviors. However, over time, the fear of consequence becomes less motivational for change. Some or all of the old habits return.

This pattern occurs so frequently that many hospitals and insurance providers refer patients to programs designed to maintain behavioral changes, whether that be a therapist, a health coach, or just through regular check-ins.

Why is it so common for people to abandon healthy behaviors? There are many theories about this; however, the common theme of these theories is that fear is a strong short-term motivator for behavioral change, but it is not effective for long-term change. Most people typically cannot continue to function while staying in a constant state of heightened fear, so, once the fear dissipates, so does the motivation it was creating.

Novel situations, like a heart disease diagnosis, can have a profound effect on people’s lives. However, if their subsequent lived experience does not match the warning of consequences, then the person is less likely to retain behavioral changes. Fear may act as a strong short-term motivator, but without a perceived risk of consequence, the fear subsides. Unsurprisingly, this psychological phenomenon has played an important role in shaping our response to COVID-19.

Fear, Change, and COVID-19
In a 2021 Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice and Policy study, Tasso et. al. explored the effect of COVID-19 on college students. The study noted that many students initially experienced fear and anxiety about the pandemic, referencing fears about getting COVID-19, spreading it to their families, and how it would affect their engagement in school. The researchers also noted students had feelings of anxiety, sleep disturbances, compromised motivation, and symptoms of depression.

Although the study primarily explored how well-managed anxiety and depression correlated with better overall academic functioning, there was another important finding in the study. The authors pointed out that, for many students, the fear of missing out on life experiences was a greater motivator to break safety measures than the fear of getting COVID-19 was for complying with regulations.

In other words, as people became used to living with the anxiety of possibly getting COVID-19, its effect on safety-related behaviors lessened. Meanwhile, the fear of missing out on life experiences became more of a motivating factor for breaking with these safety behaviors. This relates to a wealth of research demonstrating that fear is a short-term motivator, only lasting until another fear takes its place. In this case, the fear of missing out on life experience became greater for those students than the fear of getting COVID-19.

Three Steps for Long-Term Workplace and University Wellness
While all of society has been affected by COVID-19, students and in-person employees alike have faced unique challenges navigating the pandemic. As the research has demonstrated, policies that rely on fear as a motivating factor to comply with safety regulations are not likely to be successful long-term. Luckily, there are strategies that employers and universities can use to increase safety compliance.

1. Implement Objective Safety Measures: The use of COVID-19 testing, health risk assessments, and protocol compliance analysis is often more accurate than generalized self-report questionnaires. When people are asked to self-assess, it is not uncommon for people to over-inflate their perceived performance, especially in settings where they typically are being judged for behaviors (e.g., schools and employment settings). Haven’t you ever told the dentist that you always floss twice a day, every day?

The use of objective data helps administrators more accurately assess the true needs of their employee or student populations and, as such, more effectively identify and choose approaches that can further help reduce the risk of COVID-19 being spread.

2. Hold Periodic Refresher Sessions: Refresher sessions can be used to review effective COVID-19 transmission reduction strategies. These sessions should focus on reminding people of proper procedures and safety guidelines. Although it is helpful to remind people of the risks of COVID-19, creating a sense of fear during the meeting is not a great long-term strategy.

The frequency of these meetings is also important. It is important to schedule them regularly enough to be effective reminders of safety behaviors, but not so infrequently that they seem like an afterthought or a response to an event. The importance of these meetings is increased if the workforce is in an environment where the transmission of COVID-19 is a higher risk. It can also be helpful to include some time for people to safely socialize during these meetings as an added benefit for attendance.

3. Vary the Message and the Timing: People tend to get used to things over time, which can make signs and other messaging less effective. For example, signs instructing individuals to wear a mask and to social distance might have initially attracted attention, but these become expected and can be easily overlooked or ignored. By varying signage (different colors, locations, fonts, etc.), it seems more novel, and therefore will get more attention. The same principles about variability can also help with Refresher Sessions and safety meetings, as changing the content or the timing will increase engagement and improve results.

Humans developed a fear response mechanism to survive in the wild; it is no surprise then that fear acts as a short-term motivator but fails to be effective in the long-term. Workplaces or schools that attempt to scare individuals into following safety protocols will find that the fear of COVID-19 has subsided and, in some cases, has been replaced by the fear of missing out on social activities. Implementing an effective COVID-19 program to keep employees or students safe is no easy feat, but understanding and accounting for the role of fear can make all the difference.