Wellbeing at Work During Covid — Meeting Core Values

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Robin Nicholas
Robin Nicholas Communications, USA

The emotional foundation of good work

During this pandemic, people are being pulled in many directions at once. It is not simply a matter of focusing on your work. As much as people want to mentally concentrate on their job, that may not be fully possible during these times. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio defined this dynamic well, “We are not thinking machines. We are feeling machines that think.” [1] We are wired to respond to our emotions, so our concerns may override what normally would be professional skills. Before Covid, a negative dynamic at work, such as the feeling of not being seen or heard, of losing dignity and respect, imposes an emotional  drain on our mental focus. In addition to this, fear is generated by the pandemic and occupies people’s thoughts further — fear about physical health, economic security, job security, and being able to take care of family, friends, and colleagues.

So why do these emotional responses affect our work? As much as we may think that work is objective, key emotions underly our good work. Dedication to our work and passion for our work are major, emotional dynamics that must be protected and nurtured by the workplace. Here are some reasons why.

Commitment and motivation

It is important to recognize how core values play a major role in people’s lives, including their work. People’s commitment can be looked at as both rational and emotional. At work, rational commitment is about investing time, talent, and energy into the job at hand. Emotional commitment is based upon our core values, such as dignity and respect. Phillips and Edwards found that emotional commitment is four times as valuable as rational commitment at work. [2]

In a similar way, people’s motivations can be seen as external and internal. External motivations originate from outside oneself, such as salary and job promotion. Many regulations are often presented as external motivations. The problem is, external motivations are difficult to sustain over time. However, internal motivations arise from our core values. They carry us through our successes and failures. And the behaviors they generate can be sustained over a long period of time. Wrzesniewski and Schwartz found that people who are driven mostly by their internal motivations have the greatest success in reaching their goals. [3]

People may feel pride in their work, which can provide incredible commitment and motivation for each person in their work. But the emotional pain and disappointment of not being seen or heard greatly decreases that personal commitment and motivation, and as a result, diminishes job satisfaction, personal excellence, and work quality. [4]

Emotional multitasking — Before and after Covid

Today, worker safety and well-being must now operate within the Covid dynamic. The stresses of the workplace that were present before Covid, are now compounded by the current stresses of the pandemic. To understand these compounding conditions, we have to understand how we humans respond to excessive and increasing stress.

People are understandably being pulled in many directions at once and trying to multitask, trying to focus on several things at once. The main problem is this — multitasking does not exist. Traditionally, the concept of multitasking has focused on the fact that we cannot do two activities at the same time, such as texting and driving. But actually, we cannot do any two things at a time — and those things include emotions, thoughts, and actions. [5]

What this means is this: If workers are striving to do good work but are feeling diminished because they are not seen or heard — this results in feeling a loss of respect and a loss of dignity. The odd thing about dignity is that we often do not notice it until it is taken away — that is because the opposite of dignity is humiliation. And feeling humiliated can easily become the one thing that the brain focuses on, distracting from other things such as work and safety. [5]

So if someone is striving to do good work, but they have just been dismissed or ignored by someone they work with, their emotional reaction is what takes the brain’s focus — good work and safety are pushed aside.

Now place that same desire to do good work during a pandemic. In addition to humiliation, fear is also taking a huge portion of people’s focus. Right now, the fear and weariness of the ongoing pandemic are taking up a great deal of people’s energy across the globe. And this fear is extensive — fear of Covid, economic insecurity, political unrest, and more. Questions are likely circulating in people’s minds: Can I take care of my family? Can I take care of my team?

Add to all this the constant stress of multitasking itself, which causes the constant release of the hormone cortisol. Normally, during short periods of stress, cortisol is released in small bursts and will actually increase mental focus and attention. However, when stress is constant, cortisol release is also constant, which causes decreased focus, suppressed brain function, difficulty converting short-term memory into long-term memory, and eventually, nerve damage. In the workplace, this means decreased ability to focus on doing good work and staying safe. [6]

Where we are now

This is where we find ourselves now, and this is where we start. These are scary times, and each of us responds to these scary times as a whole person. Right now, people are looking for emotional and psychological safety as well as physical safety. We are more than intellect. We are whole, complex human beings of intellect, emotions, relationships, and much more. [4]

What is being proposed here is not a program or an initiative, but rather, different ways of being at work — how to be present, aware, and open, and how to know passion for our work and compassion for ourselves and each other.


  1. Damasio AR. Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York: G.P. Putnam; 1994.
  2. Phillips J, Edwards L. Do you know what kind of commitment they have? Excerpted from Managing talent retention. San Francisco: Pfeiffer; 2009.
  3. Wrzesniewskia A, Barry Schwartz B. Multiple types of motives don’t multiply the motivation of West Point cadets. PNAS; 2014.
  4. Nicholas R. Beyond the intellect — Communicating core values to support worker well-being. Paper presented at: Well-being at Work. Copenhagen, Denmark; 2012.
  5. Nicholas R. Safety communication that engages worker well-being and dignity. Paper presented at: International Congress of Occupational Health Conference. Cancun, Mexico; 2012.
  6. McEwen B, Krahn D. The response to stress. Natural Health Web [Online] (2007). Available from: http://www.naturalhealthweb.com/articles/McEwen.html.
  7. Ferrie J, editor. Work, stress, and health: The Whitehall II study. Council of Civil Service Unions/Cabinet Office, UK. 2004.
  8. Nicholas R. Invisible workers and essential workers – Core values in the time of Covid. Health Safety and Well-being [Internet], 2020. Available from: https://www.robinnicholas.com
  9. Nicholas R. 5 quotes for being at work. Health Safety and Well-being [Internet], 2021. Available from: https://www.robinnicholas.com

Copyright © 2021 Robin M. Nicholas