Psychological conflict

Our Internal Narrative: What can we actually control during a time of crisis

By Madison Hanscom, Ph.D.
During a time of uncertainty, many of us fall into unhealthy thought patterns. A recent study uncovered just how much Americans are struggling with mental health this year. Compared to 2018, those sampled in 2020 were eight times more likely to report indicators related to serious mental illness (1). A common tendency when dealing with stress is to ruminate on stressors. Will my loved ones get sick? When will the economy be back to normal? When will my children go back to school? What will happen to my career? These thoughts are normal, but they can stir up anxious feelings. 
Times like these present an interesting opportunity to reflect on our internal narrative: what we can control, what we cannot control, and how we let this impact our attitudes and behavior. Individuals view events on a spectrum of in their control (internal locus of control) and out of their control (external locus of control).  People with an internal locus of control believe they can control events in their life; people with an external locus of control believe they are at the mercy of the external environment with little ability to influence outcomes (2). This also extends to safety-related behaviors. People with internal locus of control are more likely to take responsibility for safety outcomes and take a more proactive stance when setting safety goals (3). Employees who are categorized into lower risk groups (i.e. people with low track records of being involved in safety accidents) are more internally oriented than those who are considered to be at a high risk of being involved in an accident (4). 
Although there are events we cannot currently control (e.g., When will my kid go back to school?), we can control the way we structure our thoughts around them (e.g., I am not sure when my kid will go back to school, but I will enjoy the extra time we have together in the meantime). The way in which an individual constructs their personal narrative surrounding COVID-19 can possibly have health implications. For instance, it is known that individuals with external locus of control are less likely to focus on preventing safety outcomes because they believe accidents are caused by external factors they cannot control (3). Furthermore, employees with more external orientations report significantly more occupational accidents and more severe/costly injuries (5). Extending this to the current crisis, if an individual does not believe they have control over contracting or spreading the virus, it seems more likely they will not take preventative measures (e.g., hand washing, facemasks) to mitigate the risk. Although the larger macro issues of the situation appear out of reach, it is useful to reflect on the goals that can be completed during our day-to-day. 
There will be natural feelings of discomfort associated with these unpredictable times, though it can be useful to focus on the components in which we have control. Try writing a list of things you can influence – you might be surprised at the amount of power you have in shaping your environment and actions. 
A safe workplace means employees who are psychologically and physically healthy. At Propulo Consulting, our focus has always been on safe production. Please visit our website for the latest insights and research into leadership effectiveness during COVID-19
(1); Mental Distress among US adults during the COVID-19 pandemic 
(2) Lefcourt, H. M. (Ed.). (2014). Locus of control: Current trends in theory & research. Psychology Press.
(3) Clarke, S., Probst, T. M., Guldenmund, F. W., & Passmore, J. (2016). The Wiley Blackwell handbook of the psychology of occupational safety and workplace health. John Wiley & Sons.
(4) Jones, J. W., & Wuebker, L. (1985). Development and validation of the safety locus of control scale. Perceptual and Motor Skills61(1), 151-161.
(5) Jones, J. W., & Wuebker, L. J. (1993). Safety locus of control and employees’ accidents. Journal of Business and Psychology7(4), 449-457. 


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