“Man dies of COVID, doctor son treating him back at work in 3 days”. We marvel at the doctor who comes back to work in the hospital right after his father passed away and mother and brother were still in the ICU. This demonstrates an exemplary example of work engagement and dedication. But what about the doctor’s wellbeing?
Generally speaking, wellbeing and engagement at work are directly proportional to each other. Greater wellbeing is related to better engagement at work and vice-versa. However, Gallup noted this wellbeing and engagement paradox in an article in March 2021 when this relationship seem to go awry with the onset of pandemic and subsequently a dramatic change in the work situation. According to the Gallup polls, people reported high levels of stress and worry and at the same time high levels of work engagement. Pandemic related challenges were noted for all people whether they were married, with kids, or single. Even as the stress levels were high for all sections of the population, work engagement also was high both in the US and globally since 2020 according to these Gallup polls. This high work engagement was described as a ‘life raft’ to tide over the stress of the pandemic.
An important lesson put forward by this Gallup article on the wellbeing and work engagement paradox is the need to make sure that you do not ignore that highly engaged employees could have low levels of wellbeing. The polls showed that people working remotely showed both high levels of stress and worry and high levels of engagement compared to on-site workers. The company may benefit from the high work engagement of the employees but at the risk of potential burnout of employees who continue to face challenges in the Covid situation.
Is work by itself an effective coping method?
Some individuals tend to use work as a coping mechanism to counteract stress or trauma. In some cases, workaholics tend to use work to cope with the trauma they are facing in their lives. A trauma survivor and workaholic said, “For me, working all the time and being in constant motion is one way to avoid thinking about how I’m feeling,” she says.” It gives people a sense of control of what they can do, and this is especially relevant in the current pandemic situation, when we feel helpless and out of control. Since working by itself has a positive connotation and is widely celebrated, people do not feel the need to seek help for workaholism, which can be detrimental for overall wellbeing.
Work may help people heal too as is evident in the large number of similar examples of people who turned out to help others during this pandemic. The eudemonic aspect of wellbeing (“feel purpose”) is possibly fulfilled with meaningful work as in the case of the doctors and healthcare workers returning to work right after traumatic events in their own lives, but is it a temporary band aid or distraction from the event? Right after a traumatic event, people are often in shock or a state of denial and they may choose not to talk about it or bottle up their feelings. In fact, it was noted that frontline medical workers were averse to seeking psychological help in the current scenario in India. This avoidance and numbing of feelings are symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Emotional numbing is also associated with developing depression. High levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms were found in young adults in the US last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.