Ann E. Schlotzhauer, B.A., University of Central Florida; Mindy K. Shoss, Ph.D., University of Central Florida; Kristin A. Horan, Ph.D., University of Central Florida; Hanyi Min, Ph.D., University of Central Florida

Research on workplace safety behaviors has highlighted the importance of coworkers’ compliance in predicting safety behaviors (Guo et al., 2019; Xia et al., 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic and its ensuing concerns about non-compliance with public health recommendations provides an important test of these ideas. It was anticipated that coworkers’ compliance with COVID-19 safety protocol during the pandemic would predict one’s own compliance.

Hypothesis 1: Controlling for past compliance, others’ compliance with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines at work will predict one’s own compliance with COVID-19 social distancing guidelines.

Hypothesis 2: Controlling for past compliance, others’ compliance with COVID-19 hygiene guidelines at work will predict one’s own compliance with COVID-19 hygiene guidelines.

Workplace safety research has emphasized the importance of coworkers’ behaviors in predicting one’s own safety compliance (Brondino et al., 2012; Guo et al., 2019). In fact, some research has even suggested that coworkers play a more positive role in one’s workplace safety behaviors than do supervisors (Xia et al., 2020). However, such studies have focused primarily on physical safety behaviors among construction or manufacturing workers. There is a need to examine the extent to which such effects hold for safety behaviors related to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially with regard to how coworker behavior shapes changes in employees’ adherence to public health hygiene and safety recommendations.

On one hand, the COVID-19 pandemic and associated safety behaviors (e.g., masking, social distancing, etc.) are highly politicized (Hart et al., 2020). This could be expected to limit the effect of coworkers’ behaviors on adherence. On the other hand, because of debate over adherence to guidelines, social pressure may be an especially compelling force in impacting employees’ adherence to safety protocols. Thus, we hypothesized that coworkers’ compliance with guidelines would significantly predict one’s own compliance three weeks later.

Two online surveys, spaced three weeks apart, were completed by 206 employed adults in August and September 2020. Participants worked full-time on site. The sample was primarily (74.8%) female and (86.4%) Caucasian. Healthcare or social assistance (26.3%) and retail trade (10.2%) were the most represented industries. Participants averaged 28.6 (SD = 9.2) years of age.

At each timepoint, participants responded to 11 items intended to capture their own compliance with COVID-19 hygiene and social distancing guidelines at work as well as the compliance of their coworkers at work. Specifically, the scale created by Nivette and colleagues (2020) was adapted to reflect workplace behaviors. The instructions for each scale read “How often do you (your coworkers) do each of the following when you (they) are at work?” An example hygiene item is “clean/disinfect frequently touched surfaces” and an example social distancing item is “avoid groups.”

Participants responded on a 1 (None of the time) to 4 (All of the time) scale. Table 1 provides the scales’ internal consistencies and intercorrelations.

To test the first hypothesis, participants’ time 1 (t1) compliance with social guidelines was entered into step 1 of a hierarchical linear regression predicting their time 2 (t2) compliance with social guidelines. Others’ t1 compliance with social guidelines was then entered in step 2. A significant R2 change (ΔR2= 0.008, p < .05) indicated that the addition of others’ t1 social compliance significantly improved prediction of t2 social compliance. In the final model, t1 social compliance (β = 0.716, p < .001) and t1 others’ social compliance (β = 0.105, p < .05) both significantly predicted t2 social compliance, supporting hypothesis 1.

Hypothesis 2 was tested in the same manner. A significant R2 change (ΔR2= 0.012, p < .05) indicated that the addition of others’ t1 hygiene compliance significantly improved prediction of t2 hygiene compliance. Thus, both one’s own t1 hygiene compliance (β = 0.645, p < .001) and others’ t1 hygiene compliance (β = 0.109, p < .05) meaningfully contributed to the prediction of t2 hygiene compliance. This provides support for hypothesis 2.

The findings support the hypothesized effects of coworkers’ compliance. Specifically, coworkers’ compliance meaningfully predicted one’s own compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines three weeks later, when controlling for one’s initial compliance. These findings suggest that compliance with public health recommendations, even hygiene recommendations, are inherently social and are shaped by what people think others are doing.

The present research is strengthened by its longitudinal design and generalizable sample. However, individuals’ compliance may have been affected by outside variables beyond the scope of the present study (e.g., local case counts, changes in organizational policy, etc.). Future researchers should incorporate such controls to validate these findings more rigorously.

Despite limitations, this research provides promising evidence that employees can meaningfully impact their coworkers by modeling positive safety-related behaviors.

This research demonstrates that individuals are meaningfully impacted by their coworkers’ compliance with COVID-19 social distancing and hygiene guidelines. Future research and public health campaigns should not neglect the importance of modeling behavior and social pressure.

Tags: Applicable to all occupations/industries, Comprehensive Approaches to Healthy Work Design and Well-Being, COVID-19, Empirical study, Hazardous Work Environments and Safety, High Risk Jobs; Vulnerable/At-Risk Populations, Safety Climate; Safety Management; and Training, Total Worker Health, Workplace Injuries and Illnesses