The New Worksite

Home Alone: The Psychological Impact of Self-Isolation ...

… And how employers can help

by Lilly Kofler

Ms. Kofler is Vice President of Behavioral Science for Hill & Knowlton Strategies, an international public relations company with over 80 offices around the world. Reprinted with permission. Visit here for more information.

Odds are if you’re sending your staff home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, you’re focused on logistical considerations and continuity plans, such as making sure they have access to the internet, shared documents, and each other. But, as a recent analysis of the psychological impact of quarantine makes clear, working from home even briefly during a pandemic can have unexpected and long-lasting ill effects that employers can avoid if they know what to plan for.

Published last month in The Lancet, the review looked at studies of people quarantined during previous outbreaks such as H1N1 in China and SARS in Canada and found that the negative psychological effects fell into three categories.

Fear Causes Anxiety

First, and most obviously, fear of infection caused stress and anxiety
Less obvious was that the fear of infecting other people also caused stress, especially for pregnant women and parents of young children. With the coronavirus, we’re already seeing increased anxiety among adults in relation to their parents, grandparents and of course, children. Adding the tedium of isolation to the mix will inevitably increase stress levels.

Second, many of those quarantined became confused about the best protocols to follow, and in some cases that confusion turned into anger
The triggers that lead to anger were things like inadequate information and uncertainty about quarantine plans, duration and health prognosis. The duration of isolation was key; periods longer than ten days proved psychologically harder than less than those which lasted less than ten days. Right now, the current advice for coronavirus self-isolation suggests either seven or fourteen days, depending on circumstances.

Third, psychological harms including Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome could last well beyond the period of isolation
Studies show that staff returning to work after a period of isolation can experience exhaustion, low mood and irritability. Even after the immediate danger has passed, people may continue to display socially avoidant behaviors, such as avoiding busy events or not wanting to shaking hands. As people are inherently social creatures, and creatures of habit, these longer-term behavioral changes may affect staff well-being, retention and productivity.

Studies show that staff returning to work after a period of isolation can experience exhaustion, low mood and irritability. Even after the immediate danger has passed, people may continue to display socially avoidant behaviors...

Maintaining Emotional & Physical Health

If the best public health advice includes working from home whenever possible and self-isolation for anyone displaying symptoms, employers have to be diligent about protecting workers’ mental, emotional and physical health.

  • Minimize duration as possible:
    Keep the period of isolation as short as is allowed. The longer the isolation, the bigger the risk. Wait for recommendations from public health experts, and then don’t extend the isolation unless absolutely necessary, as doing so may exacerbate a sense of uncertainty and frustration. Encourage employees to take walks outside if their doctor deems it safe.
  • Provide regular information
    Create a single place for people to go for the latest information. The World Health Organization, for example, uses a Facebook tool to keep its teams updated. Pin the latest news to the top, and always refer to the local public health advice and provide links to trusted sources.


  • Reduce boredom
    Use this moment to get experimental with virtual collaboration. Don’t just allow but encourage, if not require, your people to find new ways to redesign meetings online. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking that everything needs to be a video conference. You’re not just uploading your office culture to the cloud. Take this as an opportunity to embrace the oddity of the situation and re-examine which meetings can take place over voice, which meetings should wait until you’re all back in the office, and which team meetings can feature Karen in her bathrobe. And when you do need to see Karen in her bathrobe, try making the regular check-ins into something fun. There are plenty of quick virtual games or activities teams can participate in to lighten the conversation and encourage participation on larger calls.
  • Focus special attention
    Making sure those who fall ill get medical help is obvious, but what about those who are caring for others who are unwell or parents with school-age children? Be it children, dogs, elderly parents, or roommates—everyone is grappling with challenges they never expected to face while working from home. Some of your colleagues, especially those quarantined alone, will need more of your attention and can benefit from psychological support. Reach out to them more regularly with a “hey, how’s your day going?” and send personalized messages which offer company mental health benefits to those who may be in self-isolation alone. For those less able to do their usual work remotely, find genuinely meaningful activities so they stay motivated or think about new ways they can contribute to the organization outside of their typical job function.

Finally, reinforce why you’re all working from home or self-isolating in the first place. This is how we – and in a pandemic this means all of us – protect each other. Evidence suggests it’s better to communicate that we’re doing this in order to keep others safe rather than because we’re told to – or for our own personal health. This will be a practically and psychologically difficult period, but it will be easier to endure if we are reminded that we’re doing this for altruistic reasons.