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  • 19th Jun 2020

Britain’s emotional journey through COVID: Impact on wellbeing

It has been 5 months since the coronavirus pandemic upended ‘normal’ life and forced millions of people around the world to establish novel behaviours. The disruption was, and continues to be felt, in every area of our lives from relationships to work to physical wellbeing. But what does the latest research tell us about how we have emotionally navigated the crisis? 

Wellbeing in the UK hit rock-bottom

Compared to the same time last year, wellbeing in the UK decreased during the outbreak (as measured by combined life satisfaction, happiness, sense of worthwhile and anxiety). This reduction in wellbeing aligns with the ONS finding that 50% of Brits felt that COVID-19 negatively affected their wellbeing, with most citing worries about the future, feeling anxious or bored. Whilst estimates vary, a number of studies agree that we hit the lowest level of life satisfaction on record since the measurement began in the UK in 2011 by ONS and in Europe in 1980.

Figure 1. Wellbeing during COVID period vs last year same time

Some groups felt this decrease in life satisfaction more acutely than others, with women and younger people slightly more affected. Interestingly, key workers’ life satisfaction increased, despite higher levels of anxiety. 

Taken together, this hit to wellbeing has been estimated to equate to an economic cost of around £2.25bn per day and £43 per adult per day in the UK. By some accounts this negative impact on wellbeing – when put into monetary terms – could be 3.5 times greater than the losses experienced in GDP for Europe, including the UK.

Disaster mood pattern

You Gov’s daily mood tracker maps Britain’s feelings throughout the crisis, with its highs and lows closely following the typical psychological response to disasters, as described by the research on both natural and human-caused emergencies such as hurricanes and terrorist attacks (Figure 2). Compared to the pre-COVID baseline, the share of Brits feeling happy dropped from around 50 to a low of 25%, during the COVID-period, as we entered the phase of ‘Disillusionment’.

Figure 2. General phases of psychological response to disasters

At the peak of the crisis, stress, frustration and even fear were the top emotions cited, (Figure 3). As we move through to the ‘Reconstruction’ phase, we see a steady if slow recovery of happiness to the current 41%, albeit with greater levels of  frustration and boredom than before the pandemic started. Interestingly, this data suggests that the feelings of loneliness and sadness remained quite stable during this period. To note is that what we describe here is a correlation between people’s feelings and the context of COVID-19, rather than a strict causation.

Figure 3. Britain’s mood before and during the COVID-19 period, own based on You Gov’s mood tracker

Higher stress over recent months has translated into anxiety, overeating and under exercising in 1 in 4 Brits. In the international comparison, Brits were more likely to admit drinking more alcohol and less likely to reveal over-exercising as a result of COVID-19. Women were almost twice as likely to cite such negative behaviours, as well as issues such as insomnia, anxiety or depression. 

The psychological impacts of living like astronauts

These experiences mirror to some extent those of another cohort of individuals – astronauts. Simulations of Mars space flights with young trained astronauts find that being isolated and confined alters our sleep, immune, neurocognitive or metabolic system. Indeed the mortality effect of this isolation can be equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. And this is without the added anxiety of a family member, friend or even oneself, contracting a disease such as COVID.

Social connection seems to be the right way to mitigate these effects. In fact, most Brits reported dealing with the situation by staying in touch with family and friends or neighbours.

How behavioural insights can help

During this same period, BIT has been doing some work to boost wellbeing as well. 

  • On social connection, we have been working with the Mirror, the Daily Express and local newspapers in Britain to encourage strangers across the country from different backgrounds and views to connect online, within the Britain Connects project
  • We also worked with the NHS to create a COVID-19 series of text messages to be sent to people who stand the highest risk of complications should they catch COVID-19 e.g. those who have significant respiratory conditions; and anyone who identifies as having symptoms via NHS 111 online.
  • Finally we currently have a number of live projects exploring whether text messages can be effective at boosting wellbeing in key workers in the UK and beyond, and we will share our results when we have them.


Read more of our COVID-19 work