It’s the third calendar year of the coronavirus pandemic, the omicron variant is surging, and many of us are reaching new breaking points with our jobs.
In early January, the U.S. reported 1.5 million coronavirus cases in a single day, setting a new record. The highly contagious omicron variant has spread through workplaces, closed or emptied schools, devastated health care workers, and, for some people, further delayed or changed plans for in-person work.
If you are feeling frustrated, exhausted or confused by this highly contagious COVID surge, you are not alone. Here are some of the biggest impacts you may be feeling right now on the job:
1. You now believe that COVID-19 will be a permanent issue.
More employees are coming to terms with the idea that COVID-19 is here to stay. A large majority (71%) of 1,000 U.S. workers recently polled by the experience management company Qualtrics said they don’t think COVID is ever going away, and 39% said they wanted their employers to stop making office return policies based on the idea that COVID will eventually disappear.
As a result, more employees are wrestling with managing their careers amid an indefinite pandemic. Career coach Nadia De Ala said one question that keeps coming up with her clients boils down to how they can both deal with the ongoing pandemic and the “mess of the world” while also trying to nurture their career and life ambitions and make the most of opportunities.
“My clients are constantly trying to stay ambitious in their careers and lives, while simultaneously processing the reality that they’re still living in a pandemic and healing from work exhaustion,” she said.
2. You’re feeling more lost than ever about what’s expected of you at work.
For the first time in more than a decade, the percentage of engaged workers in the U.S. hit a new low, with just 34% of employees saying they feel engaged at their job and 16% saying they’re actively disengaged, according to a Gallup survey of 57,022 full- and part-time employees taken during the latter half of 2021. Gallup defines engaged employees as those who have “clarity of expectations, opportunities for development and opinions counting at work.”
One reason why so many of us are checking out right now? There is a greater lack of clarity about what management expects from employees’ day-to-day performance right now amid the omicron wave, concerns about vaccine mandates and new or fewer employees, Gallup researchers theorized.
In early 2020, 49% of employees said they strongly agreed that their supervisor kept them informed about what was going on in their organization, but Gallup reported that number plummeted to 36% by the end of 2021. The end of last year also coincided with higher rates of quitting. More than 4.5 million Americans quit their jobs in November, compared to 4.2 million in October.
Health care workers, in particular, are hitting their wits’ end with staffing shortages and belligerent, vaccine-denying patients.
“Healthcare workers saw the greatest declines in feeling that someone at work cares about them, someone encourages their development,” wrote Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist on workplace management. “Managers saw the steepest declines in feeling that they have clear expectations and someone who encourages their development.”
3. You feel more inflexible about needing flexibility.
Psychotherapist Shannon Garcia said clients who have had the opportunity to work remotely are expressing greater expectations for flexibility over how they get their work done.
“There have been adjustments to child care and balancing their schedule with that of their partner’s. These changes go beyond the pandemic now. It was a complete life shift,” Garcia said. “We are entering year three of this new life and many people are not willing, or able, to give up what they’ve established during this time.”
“What employers need to understand is that these life changes surrounding work-from-home did not end up being temporary. Life still moved forward, and people need that to be respected.”
– Psychotherapist Shannon Garcia
But businesses are also unwilling to give up workers — and the newly shortened CDC isolation guidelines are designed to push people to return to work faster than ever before after contracting a case of COVID. With omicron causing staffing shortages, more employees, from restaurant staff to teachers, say they lack the resources and support they need to slow the spread of COVID-19.
People note when their employers act as though things are back to business as usual and are increasingly ready to leave if the company’s values do not align with their own.
“I think what employers need to understand is that these life changes surrounding work-from-home did not end up being temporary. Life still moved forward, and people need that to be respected,” Garcia said.
4. You have a much lower bandwidth for tasks you used to handle easily.
If you are finding it hard to concentrate or care about projects you used to breeze through, you are not alone.
“One of the biggest changes I have heard clients describe is a shift in their stamina and ability to take on as many projects or tasks as they used to,” said Aimee Monterrosa, a licensed clinical social worker based in Los Angeles. “I hear folks note more fatigue, more issues around brain fog and/or concentration and overall disconnection.”
Monterrosa said more of her clients are feeling like they can’t or don’t even want to keep up with a fast-paced work environment, and are dealing with anxiety over job performance as a result.
Some of them, Monterrosa said, have resentment about employers and customers who do not consider any of the huge losses and transitions that have happened and continue to happen to people as a result of the pandemic.
5. You’re feeling more pressure to work through “mild” COVID.
The highly transmissible omicron variant, the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S. right now, has been characterized as a “milder illness.” But just because you may not need to be hospitalized doesn’t mean you should be pushing yourself to work.
Unfortunately, this message is not getting across to workers or their managers.
Counseling psychologist Cicely Horsham-Brathwaite said she’s noted a disturbing trend of clients who do not give themselves the time off to recuperate physically or mentally from COVID-19.
“This strain of COVID for some is causing them to have less severe symptoms than maybe previous variants, but sick is sick, so I encourage people to actually do what they need to do to get to the point of wellness, and not to rush it,” she said. “I see people who say, ‘Oh it’s not that bad, I can just work through it.’“
Unfortunately, the pressure to work while sick is not just internalized; it can also be coming from employers who do not encourage workers to take sick leave.
Workers too often report feeling forced to pick between their health and a paycheck during the pandemic. In a fall 2021 survey of low-wage hourly workers conducted by Harvard sociologist Daniel Schneider, 65% of people who said they felt ill at some point during the pandemic reported working while they had symptoms, citing being afraid to call out sick or “let down co-workers.”
Horsham-Brathwaite encourages people who feel the need to work while sick to assess what can be delegated and see getting better as an act that is not only in service to themselves but also to their family and community.
“I remind people that we make better decisions and have the ability to access what we know about responding in equitable and fair ways, the less stressed and the more well that we are,” she said. “It’s a disservice not only to them but also the folks they engage with if they are working when they are not well.”