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UW experts on understanding ‘quarantine fatigue’ and protecting workers

University of Washington
6-May-2020 7:05 PM EDT, by University of Washington

As the push to relax social and economic restrictions for combating the pandemic gain traction, we need to understand personal motives behind what many experts consider a dangerous rush to “reopen" and how to protect workers most at risk when communities do “go back to work.”

According to cell phone mobility data, more and more people are getting out of their houses. And this “quarantine fatigue” or “cabin fever” is evident in states that are relaxing their restrictions, as well as those still under stay-at-home orders. 

What’s behind the trends? And what’s the cost to society?

Following are statements on these issues from University of Washington researchers Susan Joslyn, an associate professor of psychology who specializes in decision-making; Adam Kuczynski, a graduate student in clinical psychology who is also co-leading a regional social distancing study;; and Marissa Baker, assistant professor in the School of Public Health with expertise in worker exposure to disease.



Seeing others out and about may give the impression that the likelihood of infection has abated, making a variety of activities seem less risky.

Government officials can try to persuade people to by emphasizing why it’s important to remain vigilant, and focusing on what is still safe to do. Although the risk may be reduced it is not absent altogether, if it begins to spread we might be back at square one.



When the motivation to return to normal is so strong, we might seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs and ignore or downplay evidence that is disconfirming. When we see other states reopening, we may give that undue weight on what it means for our own personal safety and the safety of the public as a whole.

There is an incredible sense of loss right now, ranging from loss of our normal routines all the way to loss of loved ones. We habitually seek social connection and emotional support from others when faced with major stressors such as these, but the ability to seek connection has become extremely limited for so many of us. This has the potential to make us feel incredibly alone in a struggle that we are all facing together. 

Most people are interacting with others much less frequently than usual, and loneliness can have its own set of deleterious consequences. Feelings of loneliness function to motivate us to seek connection with others in the same way that feelings of hunger motivate us to find food. In a normal world that is extremely healthy and adaptive behavior, but right now it is extremely dangerous.



As we begin to think about reopening, workplaces need to do so deliberately — with a plan in place — in order to lessen some concerns for the most vulnerable workers. Moving fast without a plan to protect workers will only lead to increased risk for women, lower income workers and people of color. These workers are more likely to be in jobs that cannot be done from home or were working in jobs that they won't be able to go back to. 

The pandemic has completely changed the landscape of work, and it is workers who have not been able to work from home during the pandemic that I'm particularly concerned about as we begin to think about opening up our economy. My previous work has shown that this is about 75% of the U.S. workforce.

For those workers who are furloughed, laid off or otherwise not able to work during the pandemic, it is certainly understandable that they could be antsy to get back to work. However, workplaces need to have in place comprehensive plans to ensure that their workers are safe as operations begin to resume. These plans need to include considerations for proper personal protective equipment or PPE, physical distancing, health screening, hygiene facilities and adequate and appropriate family leave, healthcare and sick leave policies.

Workplaces should also consider having a COVID-19 coordinator who can provide informational resources to workers on how to access different leave options, including how to navigate unemployment. Of course, this coordinator should be acting in the best interest of the worker, not the employer.

Some workers will be especially at risk as more people go back to work. Bus drivers are a key example. As places of work begin to open up, more people may rely on public transportation and could cause bus drivers to be exposed to lots of people throughout the day. Same for workers in retail, who may come in contact with lots of different people and may not have the time or ability between every interaction to wash hands or sanitize their area. 

Also, as workplaces begin to open before schools do, I see female workers being particularly vulnerable, given that the majority of child care and domestic duties still tend to fall to women even in dual-income families. This necessary flexibility needs to be a consideration of workplaces opening up so that employees can still care for a child or loved one and ease back into their work expectations without penalty or retribution.

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