In this episode of Lehigh University’s College of Business IlLUminate podcast, we are speaking with Liuba Belkin about her research on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected workers on the job and at home.
Belkin is an associate professor of Management in Lehigh’s College of Business, and holds the Axelrod Family Endowed Fellowship. Her primary research interests focus on affect and emotions in organizational settings and the role of emotions in negotiations, trust relationships and managerial practices. She also studies the influence of electronic communication media on employee relationships, decision-making and performance.
She spoke with Jack Croft, host of the ilLUminate podcast. Listen to the podcast here and subscribe and download Lehigh Business on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is an edited excerpt from that conversation. Read the complete podcast transcript.
“The Impact of COVID-19 Context on Employee Discretionary Work Behaviors through Increased Emotional Job Demands and Leader Emotion Management,” co-authored by Belkin; Michele Williams, University of Iowa; William Becker, Virginia Tech; and Sarah Tuskey, Virginia Tech, was presented at the Organizational Behavior Division Plenary on COVID-19 at the virtual Academy of Management annual meeting in August 2020. Watch video of their presentation.
Jack Croft: Shortly after the pandemic swept across the United States in March, you and your colleagues began collecting data on how it was affecting the lives and emotional well-being of employees. Thinking back to those times and the way a lot of us felt, it does make intuitive sense that if your research had found that workers were scared, distracted, and perhaps not at their best at this time, I don't think anyone would have been surprised. But instead, what you found was pretty much the opposite, that there was this pulling together for the common good. This sense of we're all in this together. So what was going on there that made the results so different from what I think most of us probably would have expected?
Liuba Belkin: What we thought about when we were studying this in the early stages of the pandemic is that we cannot rely on data that has been collected with the respect to organizational crises which are much more local, smaller, and they only affect your kind of working itself — the part of the job. This was a global crisis. And to understand what was happening, we actually looked at research on natural disasters, and what we found is that there were a number of studies when this large-scale crisis happened, for example, Hurricane Katrina, or September 11th, or refugee crisis. What researchers are finding is that people who undergo this crisis, they actually cooperate way more, they help others more because they kind of have this shared identity of survivors of this crisis, and this really facilitates their social behavior.
So instead of kind of thinking of themselves first, they actually help others more, even those who are not affected by this crisis. And I think that's what exactly we were finding in our data and we explain it in the way that it's not just the global crisis that led to this, but people will find a new meaning in their jobs. So they interpreted what was happening differently. And there were a lot of people when it started, as you know, who tried to help in any way they can. Some donated money. Some tried to sew masks, help frontline workers. But what we reason is that one of the ways people who were fully employed also tried to help is to actually go above and beyond their professional duties. And that's exactly what we found.
We saw that the harder the job demands that people perceived, the more overwhelmed that they were, actually the more they were willing to go above and beyond their job responsibilities to help the organization or its clients like students or customers, the more that they were willing to help their peers. On the other hand, we also looked at what's called counterproductive work behaviors. This is behaviors that are discouraged at the organization, like withdrawal or being tardy or doing some little things that distract and kind of reduce performance. And we did not find any of this. It was pretty low in our findings. So that's kind of, that was one of the interesting results.
Croft: A lot of your research has had to do with emotions in organizational settings. So it's interesting that one of the main things you were looking at particularly was within an organizational setting, within the leadership — the role that they were able to play in making things better for their employees or potentially worse.
Belkin: Absolutely. We looked at what's called emotional management. We all manage emotions. We all manage emotions about self, right? So, for example, if we experience negative emotions that are not appropriate for the workplace, we tend to suppress them, like fear or anger or anxiety. Sometimes we strategically display positive emotions in work settings because we have to be nice to customers, for example. So this is called personal emotional management, but we also engage in interpersonal emotional management. Meaning, we also manage consciously or unconsciously, emotions of others. Leaders do that as well. And if they do it strategically, in the right way, it can actually help employees to manage their well-being. It can also improve performance. It can decrease withdrawal. So this is really helpful tactics that we thought would be important to study during this crisis.
Croft: If you could talk a little more about that idea of workers finding a new sense or an increased sense of meaning about the jobs they were doing during such a perilous time.
Belkin: One of the ways to explain it is that we all make sense of things we do, right? And in normal times, we kind of assign different meanings to different things and we go with them. The crisis like this, it was a so-called sense-breaking event. So things are different now. People start to see regular routine things they were doing before differently. In the light of this, people were finding new meaning in things they do. For example, you can talk to a customer who is very distressed, and one way to interpret it is saying, "Well, this customer is just angry, it’s a nasty customer." The other way to interpret it is saying, "Well, he or she is probably dealing with a lot of issues right now. We are in this crisis. It's my job to help this person. Maybe, I can do something for them." So that's the example of in terms of how when you see someone's behavior or doing a job, you can assign new meaning. And in times of crisis, people changed the way they see things.
That was the theorizing behind our findings, and we think our data support this. So again, employees assign new meaning to their jobs and also to leaders’ behavior. So instead of thinking, "Well, my manager's telling me, 'Do not show your anger, anxiety.’ Well, probably she doesn't care." Instead, it was, "They're really trying to help. They’re also in this crisis." So that's one of the reasons. And what we found as well is that the trust, the preexisting trust to the leader or supervisor really made a difference, especially by reducing counterproductive work behaviors. So this means that if leaders and their subordinates have established good trust relationships, it really helped them with managing their workers’ emotions, so employees were more willing to engage in extra-role behaviors, go above and beyond. And at the same time, curb their counterproductive behaviors.
Croft: I know you've continued to collect data throughout the pandemic. Have you seen any changes in behaviors and attitudes? I'm wondering how workers are handling what is called the new normal today compared to, say, six months ago?
Belkin: We just actually finished this follow-up data collection, and we just have preliminary results. But it's very interesting because now everyone is talking about COVID fatigue, so to speak. Because we are all tired, right? So at the beginning, we were scared, but it was so new. We didn't know how long it will last, probably a couple of months. Unfortunately, it lasted longer and still we don't know when the end is in sight. And because human resources — physical and mental — are limited, you get tired dealing with everything that's happening. So we were not sure what we'll see. But for now, kind of supporting this pandemic fatigue notion, we do find that people report much higher emotional demands at their jobs than we saw six months ago, which is quite interesting because that was this shocking crisis. Right? And people were very overwhelmed, but they are even more overwhelmed now even though we kind of got used to this new normal, but we just got tired.
On the other hand, what we also are seeing is that people still perceive very high meaning in their jobs and people who do, again, go above and beyond their job responsibilities. In fact, what they reported is significantly higher than what we saw in the early stages of the pandemic. At the same time, the counterproductive work behaviors did not increase at all, which to us means, again, people are exhausted, they are dealing with a lot of demands, but they are still finding meaning in their jobs and they are still going above and beyond their expectations.