Why Imposter Syndrome and COVID-19 Mandates Are Challenging the Workforce

Have you ever accomplished something big, such as receiving an award or a promotion, and felt like you didn’t deserve it, like you were faking it while others around you were the real deserving?  If so, then you’ve experienced, at least to some degree, what it feels like to have “imposter syndrome.”  This disorder is characterized by feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt often in the face of clear success.  Ironically, the people most likely to fall prey to the syndrome are those who are high-achieving perfectionists.  Those suffering from imposter syndrome often lack self-confidence, experience high levels of anxiety, constantly negatively compare themselves to others, engage in negative self-talk, and dwell on past mistakes.  While any one of these symptoms could describe most of us at one time or another, the imposter sufferer often feels such feelings immediately after moments of great achievement.

In order to understand the role of imposter syndrome during the covid-19 crisis, it’s important to note the larger mental health implications of the shelter-at-home mandates that have been a part of coping with widespread coronavirus.  While working at home has had its advantages, it has also increased our isolation from our coworkers and cut us off from feedback loops in the workplace, both professional and social. There is significant research that connects social isolation and loneliness to poor mental health.  In fact, nearly half of Americans have reported negative mental health effects caused by the stress of the virus.  Covid induced stress and fear has led to problems sleeping, difficulty concentrating, worsening of both chronic physical and mental health conditions, and increased substance abuse. In fact, a 2017 article in the journal Public Health “links social isolation and loneliness to both poor mental and physical health.– significant association between social isolation and loneliness with increased all-cause mortality and social isolation with cardiovascular disease.”

Imposter syndrome is a disorder born out of fear and exacerbated by the inability to process feedback effectively.  One of the primary coping mechanisms for sufferers is to speak with those they trust and who know their work habits so that they can understand others’ perceptions of them.  With the increased levels of isolation due to covid mandates, imposter sufferers have found themselves cut off from potential feedback loops that might alleviate their self-doubts.  Furthermore, the larger sense of fear seated in concerns over infection and economic doubt elevate the anxiety levels that are a key component of the syndrome.

Sadly, the primary social outlet during isolation, one that would offer sufferers the ability to speak with others, is also one that can increase self-doubt.  Imposter syndrome sufferers are advised to minimize their use of social media because of the inevitable life comparisons it promotes as they read others posts.  In this work-at-home world, social media has become a primary source of both social and professional interaction.  The importer syndrome victim is thus in a double bind in needing interaction while potentially being negatively impacted by it.

Another possible impact of being cut off from day-to-day interactions of the workplace is that the imposter sufferer is cut off from realistic feedback loops.  As perfectionists, the victims may become bogged down in cycles of feeling inadequate and thus trying to do more when they don’t have managers or coworkers to note that the work is adequate and complete.  Furthermore, the void produced by the digital environment–in other words, we are either working or there is complete silence–is likely to reinforce imposter fears.  Lack of work, whether because of unemployment or only because a task is completed, leaves the sufferer operating in a silence that reinforces fears that previous work was inadequate.

This may ultimately have a negative impact on the workplace because one common outcome of imposter syndrome is for the sufferer to essentially shut down.  Fears that their work product is inadequate induces an ennui in which the victim self-fulfills by doing less work or stopping altogether. 

There are no easy answers to how workers or employers can cope with the covid crisis or the negative health impacts isolation may have.  We are stuck balancing public health concerns with the individual impacts of isolation.  It may help, however, to recognize the signs of imposter syndrome, and, if you see them in yourself, to reach out to a trusted coworker to talk about the things you’re feeling.  Employers might first contact those they suspect as suffering to provide feedback loops and might also consider ways to implement digital interactive spaces, such as virtual water coolers or video social work gatherings.

We can’t be certain of how long coronavirus will affect the way we work, and, indeed, we may see permanent changes in the workplace in the wake of the outbreak.  We must instead inform ourselves and how our current state of work influences employees and find innovative solutions to help them cope with their stresses and fears.


Megan Glenn, Meghan Writes

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