#1 Victorian uni for graduate employment1

#1 in the world for sport science2

#1 Victorian uni for course satisfaction3

NEXT UP ON this.

‘Compliant complainers’: why easing restrictions aren’t easy

Last week saw the release of a study by Vox Pops Labs and the ABC that suggested as coronavirus restrictions are eased or lifted, Australians are feeling hesitant about life returning to normal. The study found only about one in eight Australians would attend a large event even if they could, fewer than one in five would get on a plane, and only 40 per cent would go to a bar or restaurant.

We spoke with Dr Paul Harrison from Deakin University’s Business School about his thoughts on these figures to understand why some Australians are cautious of life returning to ‘normal’.

Is this the response you’d expect from Australians?

Very much so. In a period of six months, Australians have been overwhelmed with crises; we had an unprecedented bushfire season over summer, our cities were enveloped in smoke for weeks, and we’re now experiencing an illness that for most of us is a mystery; even the World Health Organisation referred to it as ‘uncharted territory’. We are grappling with so many unknowns, our natural reaction is to be cautious.

There is no doubt that we are all desperate for life to get back to something resembling normal, but people will be tentative, they will be wondering what they can do and when they can do it.

We also have to recognise that things won’t go back to the way they were before Coronavirus. Who knows, we may end up thinking about life pre- and post-COVID-19. So, our new ‘normal’ will evolve, as we adapt to life in the post-COVID-19 era.

It isn’t enough for our leaders, the premiers and the Prime Minister, to ask people to be sensible and use common sense. These can be interpreted by people any way they like.

When people are uncertain, they want definitive, specific information about what they can and can’t do. We responded best when we were told what the rules were.

Of course, there are people who complain, and others who try to find loopholes. So, in general, Australians could be described as compliant complainers, and tend to be more community minded than other individualist countries such as the US.

If the politicians tell us what we can and should do, then most of us will do the right thing, as long as those instructions seem reasonable, and are supported by evidence.

Why do many of us feel uneasy about returning to life with easing restrictions?

It’s mostly because we’ve made such dramatic adjustments to our lives in really short period of time. And because those changes have come thick and fast, we’re going to take some time to adjust again.

We’re scared. There are so many unknowns and so many unanswered questions that, for most of us, our first response is going to be focused on protecting ourselves and our loved ones.

There are so many adjustments that we have had to make as we adjusted to life over the past few months. Sometimes within a day or even a couple of hours, many of the things we took for granted, like being able to visit our parents, go out for a coffee, or go to work, were taken away from us.

But most of us have been able to adapt.

This isn’t to diminish the fact it has been stressful and mentally debilitating for everyone, but humans are incredibly adaptable. Just look at how we have come up with ways to connect to one another – Zoom parties, outdoor dancing, baking bread.

'There are so many unknowns and so many unanswered questions that, for most of us, our first response is going to be focused on protecting ourselves and our loved ones.'

Dr Paul Harrison,
Deakin Business School, Deakin University

How long will it take for people to feel comfortable again?

For some people, they will be desperate to go back to normal life and back to cafes and pubs and their usual activities. But for others, particularly those with medical conditions and those more risk averse, they will be more careful.

People look to others to help them work out what to do.  So, as more people return to their usual activities, and as long as virus numbers stay low, most of us will eventually feel comfortable again.

But that could take months – even as long as a year. But that isn’t to say that everyone will have the same response to all the different interactions that they have; I can imagine that many people might be okay to travel domestically, but travelling internationally might create a few more concerns.

We will continue to have to work out how to cope. I think the emergence of a vaccination was presented as the solution, but who knows when – and even if – it will appear.

We – you, me, politicians, even the medical experts – are making decisions with imperfect information. This is unknown territory. And what this means is that we will fluctuate between feeling okay and feeling despondent.

Try to embrace doubt and control the things that you can.

What’s your advice for people trying to adjust to this new normal?

I think the first thing to recognise is the new normal won’t be like the old normal – whatever that was. We will make adjustments.

But we have choices. We can choose to be patient with ourselves, with others, with the health authorities and with the politicians. We can choose to go out if we want to, and we can choose to stay home if we want to. Or a bit of both.

Take your time and be ready to change your mind if you are worried. Take things easy.

Right now, we are dealing with a mystery. All we can do now is cope, rather than try to think that decisions that we make will have the desired outcomes.

In life we don’t have a huge amount of control; we cope. We make decisions incrementally.

We don’t necessarily attain the highest point on our goals, we seek a higher point than the one that we currently occupy. We try to achieve outcomes that are subjectively better right now and avoid outcomes that are subjectively worse.

So, stay connected and see yourself as a member of a community rather than just responding to your own needs. Research tells us that we cope better with stress and uncertainty when we feel we are doing things for others. Try to find a way to help others, and to stay connected to your community.

And, from time to time, treat yourself if you are able to; it doesn’t have to be extravagant, but finding time to do something that gives you joy can sometimes help you to reset and find a way to cope with the world again.

this. featured experts
Dr Paul Harrison
Dr Paul Harrison

Deakin Business School, Deakin University.

Read more. 

explore more