Cmd+Ctrl: how students have responded to the pandemic

Written by Dr Simon Walker MBPsP Wednesday 09 June 2021
A major study of student behaviour has found many making a dramatic shift toward greater personal psychological control
Close-up of the 'command' button on a keyboard

Over the past year, almost every aspect of life has been heavily disrupted by the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic. Social-emotional landscapes of students and workers transformed overnight from familiar and in-person to remote or blended models. The extreme nature of this transition in our environment has, unsurprisingly, triggered profound psychological changes – and understanding what these changes are is crucial for employers.

The pandemic has dramatically changed the road on which we steer

Steering biases refer to where and how the brain is focusing unconscious attention. When there is a shift in the patterns of steering biases across a whole population, it can indicate the environment around the population has dramatically changed; people are having to work differently and harder to navigate the new social-emotional challenges – lockdowns, remote working and changes to on-site procedures are examples of this.

Working with 27,000 students in more than 200 academic institutions, STEER compared historical benchmark data on students’ steering from 2013 onwards with real-time data collected during and after the lockdown. While people have reacted to the pandemic in a variety of different ways, one significant trend was a dramatic increase in levels of internalised control.

What is internalised control?

Internalised control is a psychological response to an anxious, uncertain environment, where an individual lacks control of events outside of themselves, so they seek to control their own inner world. High levels of internalised control occur in individuals who have fixed biases of low self-disclosing and low seeking change.

In layman’s terms, this means these individuals are more likely to hold their thoughts and feelings inside rather than expressing them, and self-contain what feel like unsafe or overwhelming feelings.

In our comparative analysis of students’ steering patterns from before, during and after lockdown, STEER found that pre-lockdown rates of internalised control stood at 15.8% – but post-lockdown, this rose to 22.3%.

So, what does the increase in internalised control mean for business, and why should employers care? There are three main learnings for business from the STEER data.

  1. Increased specific mental health risks. A fixed pattern of internalised control increases the risk of perfectionism, undisclosed anxiety and a higher risk of burnout. Often these will manifest as inappropriate attention to detail or resistance to change.
  2. More resourceful but less invested employees. Employees who display internalised control are likely to be more autonomous, self-supporting and resourceful. However, it is also likely that they will be less invested in group culture, feel less willing/able to reach out for help and more reluctant/less capable of building strong relationships. Firms will need to work harder to engage workers and rebuild emotional commitment.
  3. Ongoing uncertainty will affect men and women differently. More than 30% of 17-18 year-old females now use internalised control as a psychological strategy, an increase of 54% since the onset of the lockdown. While there has also been an increase from 10% to 20% in male levels of internalised control, this is now stabilising. If gender parity and inclusion are goals of an organisation, employers will want to consider how men and women may return to the workplace with different perceptions of ongoing risk, especially as the economic ripples of the pandemic work their way out.

Mitigating the risks: what every business can do

There are four specific messages that employers can give workers to mitigate the negative risks of internalised control.

Employers should acknowledge the feelings and concerns of their workers to prevent these worries being internalised. Firms that facilitate re-entry to the workplace through an explicit process will accelerate faster in the long run.

  • Validate and normalise the feelings of your workers by making efforts to connect people in peer support pods. This will reduce people’s sense of isolation, and facilitate openness and willingness to seek support.
  • Managers should make themselves more available to their employees in the coming six months; regular virtual touch-ins are very important.
  • Finally, another protective action that can be taken to combat rising levels of internalised control is to train employees to steer effectively. If an individual can skilfully steer their biases, their patterns of steering will be more responsive and flexible, rather than fixed and inflexible, which reduces the risks of polar biases developing.

The pandemic poses many threats to the wellbeing and efficacy of a workforce, but with the right support, these can be overcome, putting your business in a position to not just survive, but to thrive.

View CMI’s Leading Through Uncertainty hub for more crisis and pandemic management tips.

STEER has been measuring shifts in the steering biases of adolescents as part of the largest major data tracking project of young people in the UK. Our analysis has provided data-based insights into hidden cognitive impacts of the pandemic, and has been used by both the Department of Education and Public Health England. STEER has produced a series of resources to train managers to improve their steering which are freely available at USTEER.IO Find out more about how we can help you and your people today.

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