As we enter the fifth month of the COVID-19 crisis here in the US, epidemiological data shows that in a number of regions, infection rates are the highest they’ve been since the beginning of the pandemic. And yet, across the country, we are seeing people increasingly disregard public health guidance. People are forgoing social distancing to venture into crowded places for family reunions, nights out at bars, and other leisure activities with a high transmission risk.
Groups of people who showed extreme care in adherence to safety measures in March or April when infection rates in their communities were lower are now acting carelessly as infection rates soar. Why? The answer is caution fatigue. This phenomenon “Occurs when people show low motivation or energy to comply with safety guidelines,” says Dr. Jacqueline Gollan, a psychiatry and behavioral science professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. When people develop the perception that a threat (in this case, COVID-19) is less urgent or risky than they’ve been told it is, they decrease or altogether cease the preventative behaviors (staying home when possible, practicing social distancing) that protect against the threat.
At FCP, we’ve guided our clients, including public health departments, local governments, and nonprofits as they fight caution fatigue and sow renewed commitment to careful behavior to limit the spread of COVID-19 in their communities. Today, we’re sharing a few tips so you too can combat caution fatigue in your organization’s communications.
Use Facts, Not Fear
Understanding the brain chemistry driving caution fatigue can help us craft impactful messaging. Dr. Gollan explains that a perceived threat initially sets off alarm bells in our brains and triggers readiness for action and protective behavior. But, as warnings are repeated over and over, they lose their urgency and stop triggering the same kind of mind and body systems that drive action. In other words, motivating with fear works – but only for a little while.
Messengers encouraging adherence to public health guidelines need to ditch fear-based messaging and embrace fact-driven communications. If you want to discourage dining out in your community, instead of stating that dining out is dangerous during a pandemic, give your audience statistics. Compare the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission at an indoor restaurant, to eating at an outdoor restaurant, and to enjoying takeout on your front porch. Give people information to guide wise decision-making, rather than trying to scare them into compliance.
Recruit Your Audience for Good
At this point in the pandemic, people may feel deflated. They’ve lost the initial fear motivating their careful behavior, and are understandably missing contact with friends and usual routines. As a communicator looking to drive adherence to social distancing and other COVID-19 protective measures, give your audience something to rally around.
Bring your audience a sense of shared purpose for staying home. Offer them belonging in the group of people who are working together (while staying apart) to protect the vulnerable. Oaklandside writer Azucena Rasilla recently published a piece titled, “Done with social distancing? Meet my Grandma Lupe.” Rasilla introduces us to her 89-year-old grandma, Lupe, who helped take care of her as a child, and who she and her mother now care for. She explains, “When you and I cross paths on the sidewalk or at the grocery store, your mask doesn’t just protect me. It protects a whole invisible network of people who love me and rely on me. Your mask is an act of love to protect our community.”
Recruit people to help protect the Grandma Lupes of their community, and join something larger than themselves.
Avoid All-Or-Nothing Thinking
Make realistic asks of your audience. Meet them where they are with culturally aware and appropriate messaging. Don’t use framing that paints people taking any risks during this time as bad or uneducated. Explaining and advocating for the many intermediate measures of viral prevention will help involve your audience in an active way, rather than alienating them with all-or-nothing thinking.
National resilience and preparedness expert Ana-Marie Jones has seen how black-and-white rhetoric can stop people from taking necessary precautions. On FCP’s founder Dan Cohen’s podcast, Mindful Work, Jones explained, “It’s a luxury for poor communities [in California] to think about when the next big earthquake could happen. Look at it from their perspective…rather than repeatedly telling people how screwed they’ll be if they don’t do as they’re told, let them feel smart and safe and proactive. Empower them!”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been told to stay home, and not interact with strangers, especially in indoor spaces. But a single parent who delivers food for Grubhub or cleans a nursing home for a living and is struggling to make ends meet is not able to follow those precautions.
Inclusive communicators recognize that this person might be worried about spreading or catching COVID-19, but they are also worried about keeping a roof over their family’s heads. Collaborate with community leaders like neighborhood organizers and faith leaders to create messaging that meets people where they are. Encourage the small but effective tools people can use when in public spaces (face coverings, open windows, frequent hand-washing, and avoiding touching your face). This empowers essential workers and others who are unable to avoid frequent contact with the public during this time to prevent spreading COVID-19 within their current circumstances.
It’s wildly frustrating to see people blatantly disregarding public health recommendations that could protect our communities. But, it’s natural for people to experience caution fatigue when faced with ongoing threats like COVID-19. Shaming and motivating with fear won’t drive people to take appropriate protective measures. Instead, using positive, culturally-nuanced messaging, and recruiting your audience to be part of something greater can help your organization combat caution fatigue through communications. You have the opportunity to use thoughtful messaging to drive safer behavior in your community during this pandemic.
We’d love to hear from you about the specific communications challenges your team is facing right now, and what you’re doing to address these issues. Connect with us on Twitter to share.