Coronavirus has caused us to rethink our daily routines and adjust our behaviours. All of us are doing our best to socially distance. Some people are choosing to avoid crowded public spaces altogether. We are certainly washing our hands at lot more. We use sanitiser more frequently and the vast majority of us wear a face mask in public. While each of these actions may seem small on their own, be in no doubt about the significant effort all of us have exerted to routinely do these things. Change does not come easily to a lot of people.
That’s why nearly all of us have experienced a few teething problems along the way. The inevitable frustration of forgetting our face mask when we get to the shop. The embarrassment when we board the bus and experience the glare of fellow passengers because we momentarily forgot to cover our face. The fact that guidelines are constantly having to shift doesn’t make things easier either. But slowly, and over time, these strange actions are becoming an increasingly important part of our everyday mental to-do list. In the same way that we habitually check our bag or pocket for our keys and mobile phone when we leave the house, these new behaviours are becoming routine.
Yet how long will they last? Will our new-found habits remain after the risk of the coronavirus is reduced? Will new personal hygiene regimes persist or will we, like the pigeons in Trafalgar Square who return to the same roosts after being scared by a chasing child, slip back to our pre-pandemic positions?
Research following previous outbreaks can shine some light on this question. Towards the end of the 2003 SARS viral epidemic, almost three-quarters of Hong Kong residents said that they would wear a mask outside if they were experiencing flu-like symptoms. Yet after the end of the crisis this number dropped to four in ten. It would seem that some of the habits formed in the middle of an immediate threat can subside when that threat diminishes.
But this doesn’t necessarily apply to all new habits. Researchers also investigated the frequency of handwashing after an epidemic had peaked. Not only did more than 90% of people report that they frequently washed their hands during the SARS outbreak period, the numbers also remained high long after the virus had gone. Other studies suggest that those who had to shield, or undertake other strict forms of isolation, during a virus epidemic were particularly likely to maintain their improved hygiene practices going forwards. Those who have had to shield due to the coronavirus may well continue with these new hygiene habits long into the future.
Whether all of our new hygiene habits will outlast COVID-19 remains to be seen. But the evidence suggests that some of these new ‘normals’ are probably here to stay.
INFLUENCE AT WORK is a leading applied behavioural science consultancy that helps build communications programmes, rooted in behavioural science. Partnering with Kleenex®, they produced an insight-led report that identified wider trends and changes in consumer hygiene behaviour.
This article was written by Influence at Work in October 2020.