The psychological impact of social distancing at work

The psychological impact of social distancing at work

By Hazel Lowndes, Managing Director, Ginger Dog
03 June 2020

Humans are social animals. Regardless of our disposition towards introversion or extroversion we feel safer in a crowd. Isolation fundamentally undermines our sense of personal security in a way that is so primal its difficult for us to make sense of. Logically we completely understand the need for all the isolating practices but never-the-less it feels un-natural and our social programming, governed by our autonomic nervous system, drives us to be close to others. We have to make a concerted and conscious effort to override this natural tendency with hyper self-awareness and self-discipline.

No physical contact

No shaking hands, no slaps on the back, no kissing on both cheeks, no group hugs. These rituals are deeply enshrined in many business social practices (admittedly depending on the culture of your organisation). Rationally, we may well understand that no proffered handshake doesn’t mean rudeness, or that the other person doesn’t value you.

The comparison of today’s handshaking behaviour with all our previous experience is being made by your limbic brain. This primitive sensory instrument has no capacity for language or reasoning. The limbic systems just generates a ‘felt’ response and activates your nervous system and hormone responses accordingly. It reacts in millionths of a second. That's almost instantaneous. It takes hundredths of a second for our cerebral cortex to kick in with a reasoned, thoughtful response, by which time it’s often too late! We already ‘feel’ snubbed, rejected, or that the other person is being a ‘bit off’.

Because our hormone responses to perceived threats (even very tiny ones) is to defend ourselves we may think things like; ‘who does she thinks she is’, or ‘ what have I done wrong’ or ‘snub’ them back next time you meet (usually out of awareness). Black stamps mount up in a book of emotional withdrawals in the relationship. If this goes on unchecked and out of awareness this can become the root of interpersonal difficulties and tensions.

At work this may play out unconsciously in slight reluctance to participate fully in meetings or to withhold information that may be helpful if we perceived others have slighted us in some way.

Staying 2m apart

Humans have an amount of personal space which they don’t like being invaded by others (well it depends on who’s invading in and in what circumstances). We also have a social space, which overall, we do like people to step into. The size of both personal and social space is significantly influenced by cultural norms, the traditions and habits of the communities in which we have been brought up.

In general, in the western business world, professional social space is about an arm’s length, no more than a meter. Interestingly, it’s about a handshake away from one another. Two meters is, therefore, felt to be too far away for productive social discourse. This is the point of the 2m rule of course. In order to compensate for the 2m distance and to allow for background noise people in conversation would need to raise their voices. There is a significant psychological reluctance to doing this because of the intonation cues that raising your voice attaches to what you are saying. In normal dialogue raising your voice in terms of volume could mean; you’re frustrated, you’re angry, your excited, you’re patronising someone, you’re trying to control someone (add any number of interpretations here) etc.

Most people would prefer not to be heard rather than be perceived as expressing themselves too forcefully through increased volume. This is all decided out of people’s awareness and may lead to much less effective communication in face to face contexts. Helpfully, many of the 2m rule communication difficulties can be avoided through technology (but that has its own communication hic-ups).

At work this may play out as avoiding conversations by keeping your head down in your work or not participating in conversations to escape face to face meetings as quickly as possible. Using the phone is the immediate and obvious answer for most.

Wearing PPE

Professor Albert Mehrabian in his now famous (and still controversial) study suggested that 55% of what we mean is communicated nonverbally through our posture, gestures, facial expressions etc. Even if this percentage is very much reduced by the context and content of what is being said, we can agree that nonverbal cues do add meaning, especially about how we feel about what is being said. For example, if I were to say “yes OK then, I’ll go along with that” whilst rolling my eyes, lifting my shoulders and arms in a dismissive way, you might get the impression that I wasn’t totally on-board. Therefore, my meaning is almost opposite to what I’m saying. The addition of meaning through nonverbal communication is instinctive and we are born with the ability to read it, it’s essential for infant survival.

Most of us communicate our meaning nonverbally all the time, and that’s great. But what if our body is shrouded in gowns and aprons, our faces covered by masks and visors and our eyes shielded by goggles. Thank goodness that much medical communication is fact based, instruction led, and procedure governed, thus making meaning much more direct, speech dependent and not open to interpretation through reading nonverbal cues.

What about the ordinary workplace which are much less procedurally driven? The familiar workplaces where communication thrives on banter, double meanings and gallows humour. Perhaps we are going to have to learn how to be straighter in our communication. This may mean being less nuanced and much more self-aware about what we mean exactly so that we say it, rather than rely on others picking up our nonverbal meanings. Facial expression is particularly powerful, in very subtle out of consciousness ways, at expressing meaning. So how will we tell how serious our supervisor is being, how urgent a task is and how critical an instruction has been if an important part of his or her meaning is shielded by a face mask?

At work these factors may express themselves in high levels of miscommunication and subsequent reworking. It will be important to make sure that you over communicate verbally to express your full meaning to avoid costly misunderstandings.


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