How does culture dictate how we cope with Covid-19’s impact on our careers?

Whether we’re more concerned with our own career development or the success of the company is often determined by our culture, according to new research from Durham University Business School. Yanjun Guan outlines the findings

The coronavirus pandemic has had the most widespread impact on working lives that we’ve ever seen, but whether we’re more concerned about the effects on our own career development or the success of the company is often determined by our culture.

Many countries have introduced furlough schemes and recommended that workers carry out their jobs from home if possible, they’ve also begun to report increasing redundancy numbers, the lowest levels of vacancies in retail on record, and major impacts across industries and the wider economy. But what is the most worrying aspect of this?

Well, if we’re more troubled by the idea that we won’t get promoted or a rise in salary at this time than what might happen to the wider company, cultural psychology can help to explain.

Personal cultural orientations

With my colleagues Hong Deng and Xinyi Zhou at Durham University Business School, we reviewed research on personal cultural orientations, like values and thinking styles, as well as national culture and its influence. Our findings convincingly indicate that culture plays a significant role in shaping the way people not only assess but also cope with the stress on their work caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As lockdowns around the world were imposed in order to save lives, offices closed and many industries even ground to a total halt, the Covid-19 pandemic has been stressful and even traumatic event that requires individuals to make sense of the new situation and choose appropriate coping actions. Because members of the same culture are socialised to endorse shared cultural meanings, these cultural orientations will provide important guidance to their personal evaluations of stressors and choices of coping strategies. For instance, our findings show that in countries that value individualism – such as the UK, America and Australia – people tend to form an independent mindset to guide their behaviour.

This will direct their attention to stressors closely related to their personal career development, such as job insecurity, difficulties of working from home, and new career opportunities. In contrast, in a collectivistic culture – such as in Japan and China – people’s attention may go beyond personal career development to issues related to work groups, organisations, and social networks.

Individual coping strategies shaped by national culture

To cope with stress associated with Covid-19, individual coping strategies have also been found to be shaped by national culture.

For example, directly solving the associated problems are heavily emphasised in American society whereas accommodating and reconsidering existing problems are more valued in Japanese society. Specifically, Easterners, such as Chinese and Japanese, are more likely to use holistic – rather than analytical – thinking styles than Westerners, like Americans.

For Easterners, their thinking is characterised by the emphasis of context as the determining force, the expectation of constant changes – especially that bad things can be transformed into good things – and a tolerance of contradiction, that opposite characteristics or elements can coexist with each other. This thinking style among Easterners helps to explain the high levels of resilience, or even optimism, of Easterners, when facing difficult situations.

Yet one problem that many people have had to tackle is that they have had to use alternative ways – such as working from home and using online communication – to carry on working. People in cultures that have lower levels of inequality, like in the UK, may be allowed some control over their work and life. Findings indicate that as they are likely to be less affected, they’ll experience lower stress.

Minimising collective damage

Others have not been able to work from home. Some of these employees are referred to as ‘key workers’ or ‘essential workers’, whose jobs are vital to public health and security, and are expected to continue working in order to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these workers contribute to minimising the collective damage and securing the national interest, at the potential expense of their own physical and mental well-being. In China, many health and medical professionals have been deployed to support their peers in other cities. The excessive work stress and risks during the Covid-19 pandemic may be too much for some to handle and could even lead to trauma.

On the other hand, this work experience may arouse a strong sense of pride and highlight the meaningfulness and significance of their profession. It may also help them build feelings of emotional bonding and connections with peer doctors who fight side by side with them, creating opportunities for new career skill development and future career opportunities. To cushion the adverse effects of sacrificing self-interest for the collective good, governments and social institutes in every culture should take necessary measures to protect key workers’ occupational safety, recognize their contributions and support for their recovery from the excessive work demands.

We can’t underestimate the impact that leaders and managers have either. Culture-directed collective actions and norms in response to the Covid-19 pandemic influences individual behaviour.

Our findings show that managers from high power distance cultures – like China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia – are more likely to seek guidance from vertical sources, like their superiors or authorities, rather than their peers. While people in low power distance cultures, like the USA and the UK, tend to support leaders who include others in decision-making processes. So in high power distance cultures, a decision-making process dominated by top leaders is more likely to be viewed as a legitimate way to formulate and implement collective coping strategies for the workplace, whereas in low power distance cultures, a decision-making process that involves stakeholders from diverse backgrounds is preferred.

Collectivistic cultures

Taking this even further, it’s interesting to note that people in collectivistic – rather than individualistic – cultures are more likely to use group performance, rather than leaders’ personal characteristics, to evaluate their effectiveness.

When we take this to a political level, these findings suggest that when facing a conflict between collective and individual interest, political leaders in collective cultures, e.g. Japan, China, South Korea, are expected to prioritize national benefits over individual benefits, whereas in individualistic cultures, e.g. USA, UK, Australia, there is a need to balance the two. These cultural practices may also impact individuals’ coping and career management practices, over and above the influence of personally internalised orientations. Since high power distance, high collectivism, and tight norms of a society are associated with centralised decision-making process, emphasis of collective interest over individual interest and strict control of social order, they will create a strong situation that heavily influences people’s work and life activities, irrespective of their own preferences.

It’s also important to remember that, in a globalising world, people take influences from foreign cultures too, by accessing international media and so on. This suggests that we’re capable of developing multiple cultural identities, and these identities can be primed and activated by relevant cues to help individuals adapt to the changing situational demands.

Ultimately, humans are a cultural species, so an investigation of the career implications of the Covid-19 benefits from a cultural perspective.

Theories and research from cultural psychology help to explain not only differences observed across cultures but also commonalities shared universally. This approach has revealed cross-cultural differences in coping strategies and career management strategies under the Covid-19 pandemic and provides important guidance for individuals to develop a more flexible and adaptive way to cope with the emerging challenges in their career development. This dynamic view of culture is also interesting for the cultural adaptation and career management strategies of expatriates, immigrants, and so on. After all, the Covid-19 pandemic has become one of the most significant global crises in our lifetimes and it requires individuals, organisations and nations to take necessary steps to cope.

But this line of research could become even more important. It may help to advance existing research on career management strategies by recognising a fuller range of functional strategies that come from different cultures, which has the potential to enrich the repertoire and flexibility of individual career management activities in response to future fast situational changes.

Yanjun Guan is Professor in Management at Durham University Business School

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