How Do Americans Feel About Returning to Work?

A recent survey paints a none-too-optimistic picture.

Posted Jun 02, 2020

As America gradually reopens following its pandemic lockdown, an important question becomes: How do people actually feel about returning to their jobs? 

This issue was probed by a recent survey from The Wellbeing Lab, a consortium of workplace wellness experts. (It's worth noting this survey was conducted in early May, before the nationwide protests and social unrest following the death of George Floyd. But it's difficult to imagine how anything that has occurred since the research was released May 21 would make the results more positive.)

 Jonathan Cosens / Unsplash
Employees are worried both about losing their job, and about keeping their job and catching coronavirus.
Source: Jonathan Cosens / Unsplash

What are some of the survey's key findings? In general, while management and business owners are often eager to get operations up and running, the story is quite different from the people on the shop floor actually doing the work.

Eighty-four percent of American workers report "really struggling" with employment-related matters. The reasons include mental health (37 percent), changes at work (27 percent), and managing money at home (23 percent).

Only 13 percent say they are "consistently thriving."

Additionally (and significantly), related directly to the coronavirus pandemic, workers are dining on an unsettling stew of conflicting pressures. Only 22 percent feel positive "about the prospect of returning to the office as the pandemic restrictions ease." Many see it as a Catch-22 situation with no easy solution: 85 percent of workers feel "worried and anxious they may catch COVID-19," yet 85 percent are also "worried and anxious they may lose their jobs." (Not to mention the very real possibility of keeping the job, catching the virus, showing no symptoms yourself and asymptomatically transmitting it to someone else.)

In short, damned if you do, damned if you don't. It's a recipe for workplace stress far more than peace of mind. 

What should management do?

Against this backdrop of pressure and uncertainty, how is management performing? Not very reassuringly, according to this survey. Only about one-third of managers "displayed genuine empathy" and only about 20 percent of employees felt it was safe "to share their struggles at work."

This is consistent with what I've observed through my own contacts with business owners and employees. Management, especially small business owners, are understandably eager to "get back at it" and get cash flowing, while workers are understandably wary about "getting back at it" too quickly. 

As we like to say on Facebook, "It's complicated." Given these complexities, I asked Dr. Michelle McQuaid, who directed this recent survey, what she felt was the single most important thing managers could do to help employees in today's difficult environment. "Show that they care about the struggles their workers may be experiencing," McQuaid answered. "With workers reporting a significant increase in their levels of struggles, and only 2 out of 10 workers feeling safe to share their struggles at work, managers need to normalize conversations about struggles during this very unusual period in workplaces and listen with compassion to what workers are experiencing, and show appreciation for the efforts they are making." 

As I've often said, effective daily management is less rocket science than common sense. As McQuaid suggests, it kind of boils down to open communication, listening, empathy, and appreciation. Reasonable enough for sure. Yet the shop-floor reality is: What we sometimes assume is normal in everyday management often isn't. I never met a good manager who wasn't a good communicator, I once wrote, and I stand by that sentiment today. The fact is, lots of managers just aren't good communicators; it's sad but true. 

There are no magic wands to wave to make life in a pandemic feel normal, but if there were ever a time for managers to put their very best thoughtful communication skills to work, that time is now.

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