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BYU study shows public praise can improve lives of essential workers

By Ashtyn Asay - | Apr 13, 2022

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

Less visible essential workers often don't feel publicly appreciated, which can lead to negative recovery behaviors like overdrinking. Study authors say offering our gratitude seems like the least we can do.

From free lunches to thank you cards, many front-line workers were shown appreciation by the American public during the COVID-19 pandemic. But did these gestures actually make a difference in the lives of these workers? According to a new study, it’s likely that they did.

This study, which was published last week in Social Psychological and Personality Sciences, found that essential workers who received public praise were more energized and also found healthier coping mechanisms to deal with the stress of their jobs, such as meditation, exercise and outdoor recreation.

On the other hand, the study also found that those essential workers who didn’t receive praise experienced more negative emotions and were more likely to cope with those emotions in unhealthy ways — such as smoking, drinking or overeating.

According to Taeya Howell, study author and BYU Marriott School of Business assistant professor, the researcher group began to consider the impacts of public displays of appreciation on essential workers at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We started seeing all of these signs, you know the pot-banging for the healthcare workers, different commercials highlighting grocery store workers, UPS drivers, all of these different kinds of essential workers, and the group of us started thinking, ‘what about the corrections officers?'” Howell said. “No one is saying thank you to them, but it’s not like they can work from home or not go in.”

The researchers conducted two main studies, the first being a survey of 186 corrections officers in New England that were hit hard by COVID in May and June of 2020, and the second a survey of 376 other essential workers who had seen social media posts from the public expressing gratitude toward essential workers.

According to the first study, a significant number of people in less visible fields — including corrections officers, sanitation workers and truck drivers — felt that the public expressed little to no gratitude toward them.

“The study found that despite their essentiality, many workers who are less visible to the public received little appreciation for their efforts,” reads a press release distributed by BYU. “A pilot study by the same authors found that only 3% of those surveyed thought of corrections officers when asked to list those considered essential during the pandemic.”

While corrections officers on the east coast may have felt unappreciated by the public, according to Bryce Moore, a sergeant at the Utah County Sheriff’s Office, he and his coworkers received several demonstrations of gratitude from the local community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The communities of Utah County, the cities of Utah County, I think they’re pretty supportive of law enforcement as a whole, and I’ll add corrections with that because we’re a part of that,” Moore said. “We’ve had companies and businesses drop off food and snacks and just saying thank you… we get a lot of thank-yous.”

While their friends and neighbors may have been able to work from home or take time off, Moore and his colleagues at the Utah County Jail didn’t have that luxury.

“Everybody that came to jail we were COVID testing… but there was a lot of unknowns,” Moore said. “We went to work, we all had jobs to do still so we put safety precautions in place.”

Having the support of their coworkers and the public encourages Moore, who has worked at the jail since 2008, and other employees cope with the stresses of their jobs in healthy ways.

“There’s a gym down there that people have access to, so if you need to get away and go work out there’s those opportunities,” Moore said. “It’s important to me, the team that I work with — they’re a second family to me.”

According to the study authors, this research makes clear the importance of public displays of gratitude for keeping up the morale of essential workers.

“The general public needs to be more cognizant of the fact that showing gratitude to only some essential workers (but not others) can have detrimental effects on those who don’t receive gratitude,” said Hee Young Kim, study author and associate professor of management at Rider University, in a press release.

These displays of gratitude or praise for essential workers don’t need to come in the form of grand gestures, another study author highlighted the importance of displays of gratitude that are essentially free.

“From an organizational perspective, this is a pretty powerful insight because companies spend a lot of money on other programs or initiatives that are intended to improve well-being of these workers, and yet may not be positively impacting these workers in the same way that felt gratitude does,” Sarah Doyle, study author and assistant professor of management and organizations at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management, said in a press release.

Researchers at Brigham Young University, the University of Arizona, Rider University and New York University worked on the study. Dr. Michael Bizzarro of Penn Medicine Behavioral Health, Nathan Pettit, an associate professor at NYU, and Sijun Kim from the University of Arizona were also named as co-authors.


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