Coronavirus and Emotional Contagion

April 20, 2020

In addition to its economic and public health effects, the novel coronavirus is worsening the mental health of many Americans. Business leaders ought to address the emotional contagion spreading in their workplaces.

The Contagion We Can Control


Recently, 36% of Americans told an American Psychiatric Association poll that the coronavirus pandemic has had a “serious impact on their mental health.” There are organizational harms that arise from such widespread negativity.

Dr. Sigal Barsade—a management professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School—extensively researches emotional contagion in organizations. In a recent article for the Harvard Business Review called “The Contagion We Can Control,” she argues that stemming negative emotion can help with feelings of preparedness and control, especially in group contexts.

From infancy, humans subconsciously mimic others’ facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language. Yet, through “a variety of physiological and neurological processes,” humans begin to feel the emotions that they mimic. Eventually, this leads to action.

Barsade discovered that—just like a virus—negative emotion is infectious. In one study, she found a “significant influence of emotional contagion on individual-level attitudes and group processes.” However, positive emotional contagion caused “improved cooperation, decreased conflict, and increased perceived task performance.”

In other words, both negative and positive emotion is contagious in groups, including business units. Of course, prevalent anxiety and fear can quickly make its way through a workforce due to the coronavirus.

Dr. Barsade’s findings reveal that this negative emotional contagion can be devastating for business performance. In one literature review, she stated that “[negative] discrete emotions in groups… was found to be directly associated with decreased group performance.” Additionally, the studies that Barsade evaluated uncovered links between negative emotional contagion and decreased worker attendance, group satisfaction, and team performance. On a practical level, negative emotional contagion affects organizations through lowered team cohesion and increased social loafing—the tendency to decrease effort when working in a group.

The Turnover Trap


Perhaps most critically, negative emotional contagion has discernible effects on employee turnover.

Barsade notices that most turnover comes from employees who generally have a positive affect when they begin their jobs. However, as they are exposed to prevalent negative emotion, they tend to increase absenteeism, intentions to turn over, and actual turnover.

At the same time, according to Barsade, “studies support the idea that positive affectivity… is associated with reduced absence and intention to turnover.” One study revealed that the “experience of positive moods”—measured by employees’ feelings during the past week—resulted in lower absenteeism. Spreading positivity in the workplace has tangible effects on employee retention.

How can executives avoid employee turnover and the other harms of negative emotional contagion?

The Solution


Based on Dr. Barsade’s thoughts in the Harvard Business Review, here are some practical suggestions for “flattening the curve” of emotional contagion, negative sentiment, and employee turnover.

  1. Decrease consumption of fear-driven information. Some news media, speculation from uninformed individuals, and social media can unnecessarily increase pessimism. Provide employees with reliable, factual information from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

  2. Spread positivity. Mix the necessary spread of “bad news” with uplifting “good news.” For example, actor John Krasinski is starting an informal news program called Some Good News; consider sharing Krasinski’s reports with employees.

  3. Encourage behaviors that lead to positive emotion. “Good emotional hygiene” can find its source in exercise, volunteerism, and meditation. Grant your employees time to participate in these activities during the workday.

Now is the time to overcommunicate with your workforce. Qlicket can help you safely collect feedback from your employees during this crisis.

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