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Research shows us that even in normal times, constant exposure to negative news can have a heavy impact on our mental health. In the midst of an unprecedented health and humanitarian crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, people are not only faced with new challenges in their work and personal lives but also subjected to a constant barrage of troubling headlines.
Among other things, negative news increases the level of cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone. Continuous exposure to cortisol has been shown to cause severe side effects, including being unable to naturally regulate blood pressure. Furthermore, negative news stories have been shown to significantly change an individual’s mood and mindset — particularly if there is a tendency to emphasize suffering, death, and other emotional components of the story. A survey from the American Psychological Association found that even prior to COVID-19, more than half of Americans said that the news causes them stress, and many report anxiety, fatigue, or sleep loss as a result.
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In a recent article, I discussed my work using behavioral insights to support decision-making for senior leaders and create effective communication plans for their employees. While the extent to which COVID-19 news consumption will affect our minds and bodies in the long term is still unknown, my research and my work as a consultant within organizations reveals there are still concrete actions that leaders can take to battle the effects of bad news and boost employee morale.
I recently worked with a Red Sox-loving CEO of a company with more than 3,000 employees spread across several time zones. Using big data techniques, I was able to gather employee information through a behavioral internal assessment pulse survey, taking into account things like business function, team composition, and project type. Armed with this data, I quickly assessed workforce morale and well-being by region, team, and level, which helped us understand the various employee needs as they adapt to changing work environments, particularly in the transition from onsite to remote work. It also helped us prioritize actions the organization could take to swiftly adapt and reduce the pandemic’s impact on the company’s culture, employee safety, and productivity.
The data was clear: Unsurprisingly, it showed that overall, the morale and optimism of the employees had been affected, especially for those longing for social connection right now.
With this data, the CEO and leadership team committed to implementing a surprising intervention for employees. This was a “nudge” designed to smoothly integrate into daily operations and aligned with the mission, values, and purpose of the organization. The rationale of the nudge I designed and implemented was rooted in my previous research and work focused on employee behavior and team dynamics. Meetings are most valuable when they are a forum for debate, discussion, and decision-making. At the same time, people want an anchor to stay connected to others, and good news sharing and discussion can help offset the stress and anxiety people are experiencing.
To test the nudge, I randomly assigned a subset of the workforce (1,764 employees) to watch a short video featuring the CEO, who spoke about the Good News Network, a daily website for positive and uplifting news stories. The CEO also highly recommended watching the Some Good News (SGN) YouTube series that actor and fellow Red Sox fan, John Krasinski, launched in late March of this year in response to the pandemic (the actor has since licensed development of the short-run digital series to ViacomCBS). In addition to the CEO’s message, a video meeting invitation went out for “Good News” on the shared employee calendar along with a dedicated channel in the company’s internal communication tool for sharing and “voting up” good news.
Prior to the video meetings, I selected relevant video excerpts (with clips running from about 90 seconds to 4 minutes) from Krasinski’s YouTube series based on the company’s culture and the data I had collected on a weekly basis. This enabled us to choose videos that, depending on the viewer, would elicit different feelings and foster discussion. Employees in the experimental group were invited to the video meetings once a week for a month — four times in total.
Afterward, I linked the results of both pulse surveys and the two pre-meeting questions we had asked respondents with the productivity analytics of the employees who were randomly assigned to the video-sharing meetings. The results showed that employees who had received good news were 18% more optimistic than the control group of employees who were not given the experimental nudge. Furthermore, the nudge group reported being 32.4% less anxious and 12.2% more likely to feel grateful for being healthy than the employees in the control group, who did not watch the good news videos or take part in the meetings.
The experiment has proven that in a short period, with minimal intervention, leaders can help boost employee morale. Based on my research with this company and others throughout the COVID-19 outbreak, I believe managers can help foster employee well-being with the following organizational practices and leadership behaviors:
- Follow the leader. Company leaders have a unique platform to model optimistic behavior and help their employees avoid burnout, especially now. Research shows that humans tend to copy the behavior of others, particularly of those in positions of authority. As a leader, try to remember that how you communicate matters.
- Support active sharing of positive news. Managers should suggest that employees set aside regularly scheduled time to read, share, and discuss positive news stories. As with the experiment described in this article, employees could schedule streaming parties of YouTube videos, whether they’re from SGN or crowdsourced picks. Companies may already have virtual watercooler channels set up on their internal communication platforms, but another helpful idea is to set up a new channel dedicated solely to good news sharing, voting, and discussing. This helps focus the channel’s purpose and keeps conversations oriented in a positive direction.
- Encourage regular social bonding opportunities. For example, teams might hold regular virtual meetups or happy hours that anyone can join on a Friday evening from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The aim would be to replace some of the small ways people easily connected with others at the office before the crisis. Research shows that spending social time with your colleagues can give you a big mood boost, even if your hangout is virtual.
- Guide employees toward evidence-based mental health programs. Numerous organizations have benefits that can be utilized for counseling and mental health support, and employers should remind their workers of their availability during this time. Employers can also bolster these efforts by bringing in vetted experts for webinars on topics like mindfulness, meditation, and managing stress. Previous research showed that meditation, mindfulness-based therapy, and similar practices, could help ease somatic symptoms, and reduce anxiety.
- Help employees develop work start-and-stop rituals. With the shift to remote working, it’s increasingly important for employees to find balance in their work and personal lives. Encourage employees to identify actions that signify the beginning and end of their day. These habits will help them transition from work to home, even when they’re in the same location. Additionally, to help reinforce separation and work-life balance, companies can utilize shared schedules where team members can identify individual working hours and time zones, preferred time blocks for meetings, child care responsibilities, and other useful information for working together most optimally.
Business leaders and their teams face unprecedented stressors in the face of the abrupt shift to virtual work dictated by the pandemic. To maintain employee morale and cohesion, managers need to implement evidence-based strategies that encourage positive thinking and reduce the anxiety and isolation imposed by the crisis.