“Essential workers” are defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as those who conduct a range of operations and services that are typically essential to continue critical infrastructure operations. During the pandemic, in addition to our frontline workers in healthcare and our retail workers in food and other service industries, essential employees for many organizations have included support roles like customer service, technical support, accounting, payroll, and human resources. While these roles may have been able to work from home for a short while, many returned to the traditional office as soon as government restrictions lessened enough to allow it.
Now, as most of the remaining restrictions surrounding the number of individuals allowed in enclosed and/or indoor spaces, requiring physical distancing, and mandating face coverings are easing or being completely lifted, organizations are re-opening their doors and bringing back those who had not yet returned to the traditional office. Much conversation in recent weeks has been spent on how to best navigate the challenges of this group — and whether or not to return them to the office or to allow them to work remotely full time.
As we focus our attention on the returning group, we are losing sight of those who’ve been back in traditional offices and may have never stopped going. We also lose sight of the essential and frontline workers in roles where they are still risking their health and safety daily to provide service and support to the rest of us.
This is dangerous. The American Psychological Association released a study in March 2021 that showed more than half of essential workers relied on a lot of unhealthy habits to get through the pandemic, and almost 30% said their mental health has worsened. Moreover, 75% of essential workers indicated needing more support than they received during the height of the pandemic.
Our frontline and essential workers still need our support now as much as ever. This includes those who have already returned to and/or never left their traditional office.
While safe returns for those who have been working remotely throughout the pandemic is important, it cannot come at the expense of those who continued to leave their homes during the thick of COVID-19.
Here are a few actions you can take to ensure your frontline and essential workers continue to get the support they need as we continue reopening and recovering during the pandemic:
- Show appreciation … There is no such thing as too much recognition in the workplace. Continue to give public and private thanks to the frontline and essential workers in your organization. This includes verbal actions like acknowledgements in meetings, tangible actions like gift cards and company swag, and financial actions like increased pay and bonuses.
- Allow time off … Those who have been going non-stop since the start of the pandemic need some downtime. Look for ways to slow the pace or to schedule their work more creatively to allow them more time away from work to rest and recover from all they have experienced during the pandemic. Wherever possible, allow this time away to be paid so that these workers do not have to choose between their wellbeing physically versus financially.
- Watch for fatigue and burnout … In February 2021, the New York Post reported that one in four people know someone who died from COVID-19, and almost 50% of people know someone who was hospitalized for a week or more due to the disease. Of the more than 600,000 people who have died from COVID-19 in the United States, almost 150,000 were of working age. This all contributes to the grief, fear, and talent shortage that we are seeing play out in our workplaces. As such, we must be on the lookout for fatigue and burnout, especially among those in essential and frontline positions, who have felt much of the brunt of these statistics firsthand.
As we start to recover and heal from the COVID-19 pandemic in some places, we must also realize the pandemic is still very much present in many places, around the United States and across the world. We cannot just gloss over this experience and go back to how it used to be. We especially cannot forget the sacrifice of those who continued to leave the safety and needs of their homes in order to keep our businesses running during the darkest moments. We must continue to acknowledge, celebrate, and support these individuals while we also welcome back those who faced different challenges while working from home.