picture showing 2m social distancing sign

Mental health costs of lockdown compliance still being felt, research shows

The more strictly people complied with Covid restrictions during the pandemic, the worse their mental health today, new research by Bangor University has found.

There was naturally a lot of focus on getting public health messages out when Covid first emerged, to change people’s behaviour. Similarly, throughout the pandemic, messaging campaigns were designed to ensure people continued to follow the rules. But there was no messaging campaign as we came out of the pandemic to help everyone safely transition back to normality. Without this, certain personality types have retained infection prevention behaviour and anxiety that undermines their mental wellbeing.
Dr Marley Willegers,  Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP) at Bangor University

The study involved over 1700 people, recruited through Healthwise Wales, who were asked earlier this year to answer questions about their personality traits and their attitudes to Covid and behaviour during the first lockdown (March-September 2020). The researchers also questioned 230 people who were friends or family of those involved in the study, to cross check respondents’ recollections of their behaviour with others who knew them well.

The team followed up with 850 of those who’d taken part, asking them to report their levels of well-being, stress, anxiety, depression and infection prevention every two weeks over a three-month period between February and May 2023.

They categorised each person in relation to two types of personality trait – those who are more focused on what affects them (agentic personalities) and those who are more focused on what affects others (communal personalities). In general, the former were less likely to have complied with Covid rules, except where they felt under personal threat of infection. Conversely, communal personalities were less likely to improve their compliance with health advice as the threat of infection increased, possibly due to them taking personal risks to help others.

The researchers found, regardless of personality, higher levels of compliance with Covid rules during the pandemic (March-September 2020) predicted lower current levels of well-being (Feb-March 2023). In other words, the more people complied with Covid rules during the pandemic, the worse their wellbeing emerged in the aftermath.  

“It’s clear from our research that if government advertising campaigns want to change the public’s behaviour, they need to take both personality types into account. Campaigns need to highlight the personal costs and benefits involved not just people’s responsibility to others.”
Dr Marley Willigers,  Institute for the Psychology of Elite Performance (IPEP) at Bangor University

One example the researchers point to is the introduction of the 20mph limit in Wales. The existing campaign to inform the public of the speed limit change, which focuses primarily on the lives potentially saved by driving slower is unlikely to encourage compliance from more agentic personalities. A broader campaign, which also focuses on personal costs and benefits of compliance with the change would target a wider range of personality types more effectively, the researchers say.

The full report ‘The effect of agency and communion on pandemic response and post-lockdown recovery’ by by Dr Marley Willegers, Dr Ross Roberts, Prof Tim Woodman, and Dr Andrew Cooke  is published by Bangor University and is available by contacting Dr Marley Willigers

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