The Pandemic’s Impact on the Future of Work

“…. we must avoid framing resilience as a personal responsibility, absolving employers from an active role in its cultivation.” Graham Lowe, the author of Creating Healthy Organizations, wrote a blog post for us about the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the workplace.

Two years and counting, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our working lives in ways that would have been unimaginable in 2019. The big challenge now is identifying lessons from the pandemic’s impact on workers and workplaces that can guide post-pandemic recovery in a healthy, productive, and sustainable direction.

While the future of work has a long history, never have so many fundamental questions been asked about how to make workplaces and jobs better.

The pandemic has amplified worker mental health issues, from stress to burnout and anxiety. Research by the Institute for Work and Health conducted pre-pandemic documents how a poor psychosocial work environment – lack of job security, unmanageable workloads, little supervisor support, low job control – significantly increases the risk of stress and burnout. Today these conditions are far more common. The challenge for employers, especially those listening to their employees, is how best to design psychologically healthy and safe post-pandemic work arrangements?

Fostering resilience can help individuals and teams meet the pandemic challenges they confront at work. But we must avoid framing resilience as a personal responsibility, absolving employers from an active role in its cultivation. Surely employers now understand the vital importance of an agile, change-ready workforce. That’s what resilience means for an organization.

Lockdowns revealed the potential for workers to be productive when they’re not under the watchful eye of their boss. For some, this was the flexibility they longed for. For others, however, working from home came at the personal cost of long work hours and blurred lines between work and personal time. For many parents, especially mothers, looking after young children and working from home was an impossible combination. Constructive responses to these work-life issues include recent federal-provincial childcare funding commitments in Canada, Portugal’s initiative to ban employers from contacting employees off hours, and reducing the work week to four days – which Gallup research suggests improves employee well-being.

On-going training and development are essential for an organization’s future success, strengthening workforce capabilities, job satisfaction, and engagement. Again, the pandemic has been disruptive, either halting (e.g., front-line retail workers), leaving no time for it (e.g., in the healthcare sector), or closing off access to training and development (e.g., laid-off hospitality sector workers). Employers who implement training and development based on current and future workforce skill needs – especially anticipating the impact of artificial intelligence, robotics, and other advanced technologies – will be set up for sustainable post-pandemic success.

Something more fundamental has happened in the past two years. Having monitored work trends for many decades, never have I encountered today’s existential reconning. Indeed, the pandemic’s personal toll has led some to question the meaning of work and what they want out of a job. One result is a dramatic rise in quit rates. The best response by employers is to ramp up two-way communications to find out their workers’ evolving wants and needs. And then quickly respond in meaningful ways.

The pandemic also widened existing fault lines in the workforce and society. COVID disproportionately inflicted suffering on Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. If it were not for government income support programs, the personal economic effects of the pandemic could have been truly devastating. These trends are reopening the debate about a guaranteed income.

Comparing front-line employees who remained on the job throughout the pandemic with white-collar workers who quickly moved to remote work reveals starkly different experiences. These contrasting scenarios have widened the job quality gap. Closing this gap requires employers to support all employees to deal with future health and safety risks. As such, increased access to paid sick leave and enhanced workplace mental health resources could be a positive legacy of the pandemic.


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