Why we lack motivation to work during a global pandemic

Losing motivation to work during corona crisis and how to fix it

“I find it so hard to work,” said Jane, a marketing account manager. Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, she is working from home for the first time. “My brain tells me this is home and not the office, and so I act accordingly, finding so many reasons not to work. I also miss my colleagues and my brain is fogged by worries about the future.”

Does this sound familiar? In our “new normal”, with many of us working remotely in self-isolation amidst a world health crisis, it can be difficult to get motivated.


Motivation comes from both inside and outside of us. Extrinsic, or external, motivation is when we are compelled to do something for a reward—such as for praise, money or social recognition—or for fear of punishment. Intrinsic, or internal, motivation is when we are compelled by things that are personally gratifying, such as learning, satisfying a curiosity, taking an interest, problem-solving or success.

Why does motivation dip when working from home?

Fewer rewards

In a study carried out at the Polytechnic University of Valencia on employee motivation, lead researcher Lourdes Canós-Darós concluded, “The importance of reward policy in motivation is remarkable.” In a work setting, her list of external motivation factors includes recognition, performance management, training, promotion, communication and the creation of a positive environment. Many of these rewards are naturally absent or diminished if you are working from home.

A lack of team spirit

Coworkers create energy and set the bar in the office. Colleagues can also create a “contagion effect”. If we see someone else enjoying something we don’t like, it can help change our attitude towards it. Maths, anyone?

This is true for Andrew, who works in sales. “When other people are around there is a social pressure to work. You feel as if you are being watched, which is a good thing. A lot of my friends who work from home used to go to a café to work, to get that feeling…if you are working from home you can start procrastinating by going into the kitchen and cleaning the hob,” he said.

Micromanagement.

Some bosses struggle to manage staff remotely, often when they are doing so for the first time and under difficult circumstances. This can lead to employees feeling demotivated. “My boss always messages me at 8am asking what my work plan is for the day,” said Emily, who works in IT. “Then she emails every 10 minutes asking me to do things, ironically stopping me from working effectively and getting stuck into things.”

Despite needing external encouragement, we are actually really good at driving ourselves, according to motivation expert Dr Kou Murayama from the University of Reading. “Although extrinsic incentives undoubtedly play an important role in shaping our behaviour, humans are endowed with the remarkable capacity to engage in a task without such incentives, by self-generating intrinsic rewards,” he said. So our loss of motivation during this pandemic isn’t just about the lack of external encouragement due to working from home. It’s something deeper.

Why might we start to lose motivation during a world crisis?

The coronavirus has impacted our lives in every way, from freedom of movement to the way we work. Here’s why the stress and anxiety might affect our productivity:

Identity crisis:

An important internal motivator is the need to find a meaning to our lives, identified by famous psychiatrists and philosophers from Viktor Frankl to Leo Tolstoy. Meaning gives our lives purpose, values and a frame to live by, and can boost self-worth.

Finding this meaning helps us shape our identity and so work forms a part of it—both in terms of what we do and where we are in a hierarchy. Amy*, a straight As at school, a first at university and a key role in a charity, is now sitting listlessly at home worrying about the future. Who is she now that her achieving trait has gone? Who are you as a home worker? These questions can cause us to lose motivation towards the tasks at hand.

Anxiety:

It is no surprise that people are worried, about themselves and loved ones catching the Covid-19 virus, and the future of the world or their jobs. This anxiety comes in two main forms: a response to something that is actually happening, such as financial worries due to reduced or lost work; or a loved one being ill. The other type, pathological anxiety, is a persistent fear of what might happen, such as worrying about the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the world or on our careers.

It’s hard to focus on work when you are overwhelmed by anxiety. It can also fog your brain because it is linked with fear. When your body senses danger it goes into fight or flight mode and pumps out adrenalin and noradrenalin, which take energy away from the part of your brain that thinks logically. After all, you don’t need the capacity to compile a spreadsheet if you are being chased by a tiger. Your body cleverly diverts your energies elsewhere. It stands to reason that this is a short-term response, which is why longer-term anxiety can be exhausting and crippling.

A lack of job security and stagnation:

If your job is on the line, you may initially work harder to try to keep it. However, if the situation looks hopeless you eventually give up. After all, what are you working for? And this thought of losing your job can also lead to anxiety of its own.

Additionally, the prospect of promotion is a key motivator for many employees. Managers know this, but the economic situation during a world crisis makes it unlikely that anyone will be moving up the ladder.

Distractions:

Either through boredom or our intrinsic motivators—interest, curiosity and self-fulfilment—we may become distracted by chores and activities such as planting seeds, DIY, doing puzzles and cooking. When you’re at home, especially in lockdown, we also feel a need to focus on our “nests”.

What can you do to stay motivated?

It helps to understand where you may trip up and to work on those hurdles in a compassionate way.

  • Be kind to yourself. If you’re not used to working from home, especially with others—kids for instance—you need time to adjust. Try not to get frustrated if you find it difficult and begin to recognise your own patterns, rhythms and motivators.
  • Put a limit to news consumption. Constantly keeping up with the Coronavirus news cycle can be anxiety-inducing and demotivating. Set a limit for yourself. For example, I’ll only read the news in the evening, for 30 minutes.
  • Establish a routine. Away from the structure of an office environment, develop a few cues during the day that help you to buckle down. For instance, give yourself some time to clear your head before you begin and then make a hot drink and turn on your computer to indicate it is time to start.
  • Give yourself breaks. You will definitely be distracted during the day, but instead of office-based tactics such as absent-minded Googling, at home you will get up and do other things. Just as you do in the office, give yourself the time out, but then work your way back to the task, perhaps using a snack as a cue to start again.
  • Figure out your personal motivators. Start to understand what drives you. The words “motivation” and “emotion” both come from the Latin word motus, meaning movement, impulse or passion. What chimes with your personality? Is it curiosity, problem-solving, the chance to learn, a sense of achievement, providing meaning or taking an interest? It depends on the task, but try to apply some of these motivators.
  • Set yourself deadlines. This is a great way to keep on the job. If your projects are long-term, break them down into smaller tasks with a deadline for each one.
  • Stay in touch. Find someone—or a few people—you can share with during the day. Different people can give you the range of support you might need, from a colleague who knows office politics, to the friend who is a good listener and the loved one who is happy to hear about mundane events such as the walk you’ve just been on or the coffee you spilt on the floor.
  • Tap into who you are and enjoy the freedom that remote working brings. Some people like to dress up for work, which helps their brain get into office mode, but if you are happier working in loungewear with your feet on the dog, then go for it. No one can see how you work, they just get the end result.

Who knows, you may work more effectively when you don’t have someone looking over your shoulder all the time. So if you are feeling a lack of motivation, be kind to yourself. Understand that this feeling is natural, particularly at a time when the world seems to be falling apart and our interaction with others is limited to phone and laptop screens. Work out what is hindering you and maybe you will even find out more about yourself—both professionally and personally—in the process.

*Names changed

Photo: WTTJ

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Emma Cullinan

Psychotherapist and writer

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