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Pandemic guilt: What it is and how to address it in the workplace

Natalie Davis

By Natalie Davis

Jul 22, 2020

Pandemic guilt: What it is and how to address it in the workplace

COVID-19 has forced numerous changes, unfamiliar emotions, and new experiences into our lives in a very short period of time.

From quarantining to homeschooling and everything in between, we’ve all been affected in our own personal ways, and we’ve seen the effects on those around us, too, especially our coworkers who we interact with regularly.

It’s hard to find a colleague who hasn’t been negatively affected by the pandemic, and it’s easy to understand at surface level why these people are moody, tired, or just “off”.

He has 3 kids at home all day; he’s trying to work and still give them attention.

Her husband lost his job.

Her mother just got diagnosed with the virus.

The list of life-altering effects can go on and on, and the things that smart business leaders have done to support these employees has been nothing short of heart-warming.  

But what about those coworkers who don't seem themselves but don’t have an obvious reason why?

What about the ones who haven’t experienced a whole lot of negatives, or even crazier, have actually benefited from the pandemic in certain ways?

He doesn’t have any kids, why is he exhausted?

Her husband got a raise during all of this, what does she have to be stressed about?

She hasn’t had any loved ones get sick, wouldn’t that be nice?

Even if these things aren’t actually being said, whispered, or even thought in the workplace, they could be what those “unscathed” employees believe their coworkers are thinking.  

After seeing all the awful things that people are going through, being the fortunate or “lucky” ones can really weigh on people.

Often, this comes in the form of feeling bad talking about the good things in their lives or venting about the personal issues that appear trivial compared to what those around them are experiencing.

Guilt can build when people feel more fortunate than others, and a new term has been developed to suit our current state: pandemic guilt.   

What is pandemic guilt?

Pandemic guilt is similar to survivor’s guilt, or more broadly, existential guilt.

It’s the feeling that often arises in those who believe they made it out of trauma or other perceived injustice better than those around them.

For instance, amidst the current pandemic, many companies were forced to reduce their staff. Pandemic guilt could affect those who remained employed while others did not.

If we all reflect on our experiences throughout the pandemic thus far, chances are we’ve all felt some level of pandemic guilt, or may experience it as things move forward.

While it might not seem to be something to worry about, it can actually affect our mental and physical health in various ways.

According to Hackensack Meridian Health,  pandemic guilt "may result in nightmares, insomnia, inability to function, social isolation, feelings of fear, emotional detachment, avoidance of usual activities, and could be a form of PTSD if it lasts more than four weeks.”

Clearly this isn’t something to take lightly. Being aware of it while interacting with coworkers or others can help provide some context for why they’re acting strangely or even underperforming.

Having this understanding and awareness could help alleviate what they’re going through so they can work towards getting back to their normal selves.

How can I tell if a coworker is suffering from pandemic guilt?

Whether you’re evaluating your own feelings or those of others, there are a few signs that can help you determine if pandemic guilt is to blame.

Symptoms of pandemic guilt can include:

  • Sleep changes or insomnia
  • Lack of focus, concentration, or drive
  • Appetite changes
  • Tiredness and lack of energy
  • Anxiety
  • Feeling disconnected from others

Noticing any number of these signs could be cause for concern, and the person suffering them may need some help to get through it.

How can I help a coworker who is suffering from pandemic guilt?

If you know or suspect that an employee is suffering from pandemic guilt there are a few things you can do to help:

  • Tell them what they’re feeling is normal. Assure them that, in the words of Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W. on Psychology Today. “this is rational guilt drawn from a healthy sensitivity to others, stimulated from an imposed violation of your own core values, a guilt-driven by an awareness of the unfairness of life that we can’t explain and can’t control.”
  • Have them define and take a break from triggers. Perhaps listening to the news or reading social media posts is only making things worse. Help them identify what those triggers are so they can limit their exposure.
  • Promote exercise. Being active can raise mood levels and improve overall health. Ask them to go for a walk during lunch or other breaks to de-stress and reset.  
  • Encourage them to pay it forward. While things are going well, encourage them to reach out to people who aren’t as fortunate at that time to see if they can lend a helping hand. Being able to help those less fortunate can boost their mood and give them some purpose amidst everything going on around them.

We’re all in this together

We all have our own unique stories of how the pandemic has upended our lives.

Now more than ever it’s important to be cognizant that those around us may be dealing with things we can’t see or even relate to.

Make an effort to be supportive and helpful whenever possible.

Keep in mind, seeking the help of a professional might be a good option if and when things start to feel overwhelming.

We all have our ups and downs from time to time, so don’t feel bad about asking for or receiving help, it’ll all come back around eventually if we all do our part to pay it forward when we can.


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