Perhaps you have seen some version of 2020’s unofficial meme featuring a peacefully oblivious cartoon dog sipping coffee and affirming that everything is fine as he is slowly engulfed by flames. Technically the dog says “this is fine” because unlike humans in 2020, the dog is dealing with only a single, localized fire. To be clear, this meme is not intended to be hopeful.

For many people, the COVID pandemic tops this year’s list of stressors. Indeed, nearly 7 in 10 U.S. workers say this has been the most stressful time of their entire professional careers. In addition to the obvious health risks and economic threats, the pandemic has dealt a severe blow to our autonomy as individuals. Having autonomy means that you can behave authentically and exercise at least some personal control over your behavior and your environment.

People care deeply about autonomy. Decades of research have demonstrated that autonomy is associated with higher motivation and well-being among employees. Many psychologists even consider autonomy to be an innate psychological need. But it’s obviously hard to feel autonomous when taking a conference call while changing a toddler’s diaper, when interviewing for a new job over Zoom, or when trying hard to avoid the guy without a mask in the supermarket. 

Yet, our recent research suggests that when it comes to autonomy, people may be more resilient and adaptable than we realize. In March, as the pandemic was quickly escalating in the United States, my collaborators and I surveyed employees from 41 organizations three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays. Many employees completed our surveys during their first two weeks of working from home, providing us with insights into employees’ initial reactions to their new work arrangements and the pandemic more broadly. We found that employees reported a steep rebound in their sense of authenticity and personal power—both of which are indicators of autonomy—even as the pandemic was objectively worsening. These findings were surprising because most research on people’s responses to stress and trauma suggests that restoring a sense of autonomy or control can often take months, if not years. But we found meaningful increases in reported autonomy over just 10 workdays.

We also found that people who scored higher in the personality trait of neuroticism—that is, people who frequently experience negative emotions such as anxiety—recovered their sense of autonomy faster than less neurotic people. This may seem counterintuitive. Neuroticism is often viewed as a personality flaw or weakness. However, in contexts where vigilance and worrying are prudent, such as during a global pandemic, neuroticism can be highly functional. For these reasons, some researchers have suggested that neuroticism can even be “healthy”, especially when paired with a high level of conscientiousness. So, neurotic people may feel right at home during an anxiety-producing pandemic, while other, less neurotic people may struggle to navigate a constantly changing world.

As reassuring as our findings might seem, they should not be taken as a recommendation that people should minimize the objective realities of the pandemic—or any other complex threat. Many people are suffering unprecedented medical and economic hardship. That reality is, and should remain, alarming despite the surprising progress some people have made in adapting to this “new normal.” After all, things don’t end well for the “this is fine” dog in the cartoon.

For Further Reading

Anicich, E. M., Foulk, T. A., Osborne, M. R., Gale, J., & Schaerer, M. (2020). Getting back to the “new normal”: Autonomy restoration during a global pandemic. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(9), 931-943.

Friedman, H. S. (2019). Neuroticism and health as individuals age. Personality Disorders: Theory, Research, and Treatment10(1), 25-32

Radel, R., Pelletier, L. G., Sarrazin, P., & Milyavskaya, M. (2011). Res-toration process of the need for autonomy: The early alarm stage. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101,919–934


Eric Anicich is an Assistant Professor in the Management and Organization Department at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.