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Using Empathy to address physical discomfort while promoting mask usage

Updated: May 21, 2020

One of the key protective behaviours which is being promoted in the Covid times is the usage of masks. After some inconsistent messaging in the initial days, most governments across the world have moved on to a standard messaging of masks being effective in arresting the speed and volume of transmission.

While the ready risk availability of contracting the virus has led to quicker adoption in many countries, the fear is that it might not continue to be a behaviour which is practised once the lockdowns across the world ease and risk perception diminishes.

Image courtesy: Amey Mansabdar

But a major reason leading to improper usage and even non-adherence could be due to the discomfort associated with wearing masks for long hours. Without a standardised type of mask in circulation, the material and fit of masks lead to multiple problems including issues with breathing, sweat discharge, pressure on the face, slippage and dampness. In the long term, a lot of these issues could be addressed through design tweaks to the masks. But in the short and medium term, governments have to find nudges which allow people to persist with the habit while possibly being uncomfortable in the teething stages.

What could work?

  • Acknowledge the discomfort: In every communication around mask usage, speak about the fact that masks could be uncomfortable in the initial days. Call out the problems like breathability and sweat discharge, which people would commonly face and give them coping mechanisms to fall back on. This should also increase precautionary and anticipatory communication around coping behaviours like touching the face, taking it below the nose or wiping sweat off before washing hands.

The acknowledgment of discomfort should be a part of the ‘loss framing’ messaging and also be linked to communication around the symptomatic nature of the disease.

  • Bring out the temporal nature of mask discomfort: Stress on the fact that mask usage becomes easier with time and the everyone can easily adapt to it. Present a temporal scale of discomfort and give a timeline by which usage would become easier.

  • Use minor discomfort as an effectiveness heuristic: A heuristic which could work in easily adapting to the behaviour is ‘A little discomfort initially, means the process is working’. The discomfort could be an indication of proper fit and technique, and that assurance needs to be provided to the users.

  • Use minor discomfort as a trade-off: Communication could entail projecting tolerance of minor discomfort as a means of slowly getting back to normal. Sustained mask usage then could be projected as the means through which social isolation and lockdowns could be eased and normal life could be resumed. The discomfort could be a trade-off for avoiding bigger inconveniences like a more prolonged lock down.

  • Build intrinsic motivation by referencing inspirational actors: Motivation of users to deal with temporary discomfort can be built by using the reference of inspirational actors like health care providers. Messaging focused on sentiments like ‘if they can do it, I can do it too..’, could work in a period when social solidarity is high.

  • Preparation for usage: People could be motivated to prepare for the discomfort beforehand in a more neutral setting like their homes. This could entail wearing the mask for short durations inside their homes to understand the discomfort better. Another way could be to always carry a spare mask in case there is excessive sweating or dampness in the used mask.

To deal with the coping behaviours like touching the face, wiping sweat and keeping the nose free, certain alternative behaviours could be promoted. These include cues to make hand-washing an immediate ritual before removing masks, touching your face with clean cloth or tissues etc.

Precautions to be observed:

-Masks do not compensate for risk: There are numerous instances of safety devices and protective/preventive communication leading to more risky behaviours. For instance, condom usage is seen to a license in some cases for risky sexual behaviour and seat belts and helmet usage are also interpreted as a protection mechanism which allows you to speed. Masks are ineffective without adequate social distancing and hand-washing practises. Therefore, the communication needs to address the possibility of this faulty interpretation and the context in which the heuristic is being used needs to present the new normal under the pandemic situation.

-Long time usage has its disadvantages: Using a mask for long hours and sustained usage of damp masks could lead to bacterial infections and increase the health risks in users. Therefore, mask usage guidelines need to be done with an easily consumable decontamination protocol.


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