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The pressure on lonely workers post pandemic is unacceptable

There has been no shortage of stories about the Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, or whatever you want to call it. The rate of people quitting their jobs has declined somewhat, but it still remains above pre-pandemic norms. There are still about two job openings per every unemployed worker in the United States and the United Kingdom’s statistics aren’t all that different. The labour market remains incredibly tight.

However, we have seen arguably less coverage on what impact this has on the workers still on the job, trying to make their situations work under increasingly tight and stressful conditions? I’ve had many friends tell me they have been put in said conditions and it results in them having to do more work for not much more (if any more) pay. 

If you haven’t experienced this firsthand, you’ve definitely got a sense of it. You have probably noticed at your local coffee shop, pharmacy and supermarket how short staffed everything is. Many consumers are, understandably, finding themselves frustrated with staff shortages causing longer waits and worse service across multiple sectors. Workers in those sectors often bear the brunt of that frustration, so on top of being overworked, they’re treated cruelly and even abusively by customers. 

While the vast majority of people in the west spend much of their lives as workers, many still view themselves primarily as consumers. Through that consumer lens, they often have excessively high expectations — expectations they’ve sort of been trained into by companies. When those expectations aren’t met, they experience it as a loss. The customer has been told for decades that they’re always right, they’ve come to believe it, and now that they’re met with snags in that framework, they lash out.

One could argue that this presents a sort of professional epidemic. Joseph Mazzola, associate professor of psychology at Meredith College and an expert in industrial and organisational psychology even emphasises that work stress and overwork impacts people’s lives outside the workplace in myriad ways. “We know burnout is linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety and linked to physical issues. It can eventually lead to heart attacks, hypertension, and a number of terrible things. But even in the short term, it leads to more symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, even body aches,” he said.

For many workers – middle and working class alike- a lack of staff means more pressure to show up. There are stories of workers receiving poor treatment after needing to take 10 days sick leave due to Covid or time off for other illnesses. I worked in a cafe over late spring to mid summer of this year for a bit of extra cash and essentially they ended up being super short staffed. I was scheduled for 10 hours a week but they kept putting me on for 16 which I just couldn’t manage. When I told them I couldn’t make said hours they said I was being difficult and then would put that same pressure on other part time staff who didn’t need it. The tight labour market lends to this overarching narrative that it is relatively easy for workers to pick up and leave their jobs if they’re unhappy. I had the privilege to leave that job as a freelancer juggling many side hustles but for those working full time and experiencing this, such a luxury is not entitled to them. 

At the outset of the pandemic, employers laid off workers in droves. Now, they’ve had a hard time staffing back up, or in some cases, they don’t want to, at least entirely. Many companies have figured out they can do more with less. Amid fears of a recession on the horizon — on top of a tight labour market — some are holding off on hiring until they see how it shakes out, or letting attrition take its toll.

A silver lining is that post pandemic, conversations surrounding issues like burnout and the need for hybrid working have arisen. Opening these conversations is crucial, whether change will happen, well, that remains to be seen.
The pandemic has, of course, contributed to much worker burnout, but that’s not the only thing in play here. While workers currently are supposed to have more power than they have in recent years because the labour market is so tight, for many of them, work hasn’t really changed much at all, or has gotten worse. Structurally, policy solutions that could give workers some more weight in the employer-employee dynamic — such as making it easier to unionise or updating the unemployment insurance system — haven’t happened.

And so, things are worse. When there’s one server at a restaurant trying to do the work of what used to be three, it’s annoying for that server and for the diners. The office worker now working remotely might enjoy the time they’re saving in their commute, but many are just filling that supposedly saved time with longer hours because they are now a team of one. It’s a bad situation for everyone involved — well, almost everyone.

The situation isn’t a particularly new one — I remember working as an intern at French Vogue in 2018/2019 and being one of two 19 year old interns expected to run the entire digital section and social media for the world’s most popular fashion magazine. However now, more workers are starting to reach their breaking points, or at least to talk about it. But talking about the burden only goes so far if the burden — and the extractive, capitalistic system at the root of it — isn’t addressed.

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