Unprecedented or unprepared? : exploring the role of organizations in motivating employee protective behaviors during a health crisis




Tich, Kendall Paige

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The world has experienced an increase in crises and disasters like wildfires, hurricanes, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, practitioners and scholars alike have looked for ways to prepare and empower people to understand risk, prepare for disasters, and protect themselves. During health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations, the government, public health officials, and the media shared information around safety measures and healthy behaviors (Kim & Kreps, 2020; Stephens, et al., 2020) to invoke positive behaviors such as taking protective action (Liu, et al., 2020; Stephens, et al., 2020). Guided by the use of Protection Motivation Theory (Maddux & Rogers, 1983), PMT, this study applied a new perspective to our understanding of risk communication and protective action-taking: incorporating the role of organizations in risk communication to understand how people intend to respond to threats, such as the COVID-19 health threat. The current study extended research in risk information seeking, risk and disaster preparedness, and protective behaviors taken during crises by drawing on variables in the PMT. The findings revealed that although organizational relationship variables are important in understanding protection motivation behaviors, it is the exposure of employees to messages about protective action and how satisfied they are with those messages that tell the story of an organization’s role in influencing employee behavior. The connectedness one feels to their organization (i.e. identification) and the behaviors of employees around them (i.e. norms), did not significantly influence employee protective action-taking above and beyond PMT variables. The application of PMT alongside organizational variables, led to a deeper understanding of the role organizations and message exposure play in helping employees take protective actions during a crisis. This provided an important space for organizational communication scholarship to contribute to the growing body of literature in risk and crisis communication. The purpose of this study was to understand the potential impact of organizational variables on engagement in protective behaviors, above and beyond the role that PMT variables play, during a health crisis. The results build upon our understanding of the role organizations can play in the crisis context and provide significant theoretical and practical implications for organizational and risk communication and the practice of communication during a crisis. This understanding of the role message exposure and organizational message satisfaction can play during crises can help organizations make communicative improvements with the hope that future efforts can facilitate and encourage a more prepared workforce so that an “unprecedented” crisis is prepared for and “precedented.”


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