Work Stress in the Age of COVID: What Can We Do?

Photo by Juanmonino (iStockPhoto)

Work stress during the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has been causing much uncertainty, anxiety, and stress, touching on nearly every aspect of our lives, and is likely to stay for a while more. Research has shown, long before the pandemic, that work stressors (sources of stress at work) including, high job demands, low job control, long working hours, and imbalance between efforts and rewards, can negatively impact mental and physical health. During the pandemic, many of these work stressors have intensified including lack of social support (due to lockdowns and social distancing) and balancing work and family life, especially for working families with very young school-age children. On the flip side, business closures or staffing cuts have led to the most significant rise in unemployment and underemployment since the Great Depression, both major causes of stress and mental health issues.

Illustration by Iryna Alekseienko (iStockPhoto)
February 2021 tweet re: Jacobin Mag story on poultry workers

What research shows

Our recent scientific editorial, “COVID-19 Pandemic: What Has Work Got to Do With It?”, by Pouran Faghri, MD, Marnie Dobson, PhD, Paul Landsbergis, PhD, and Peter Schnall, MD, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, discusses the effects of work stress on the severity of COVID-19 and the implications of that for essential workers and workers of color. Over the last 40 years, research has shown that many job stressors contribute to chronic stress which accumulates over time and changes the physiology of the body, contributing to obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and perhaps most importantly to immune dysfunction.

Stressors affect the function of the immune system by increasing inflammatory cytokines which have also been linked to more severe outcomes of COVID-19.

Low-wage, essential workers and workers of color are more likely than white workers to have these “comorbidities” caused, in part, by stressful work as well as stressful living conditions, financial strain, and exposure to violence or discrimination. Those with comorbid conditions (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease) have a higher rate of COVID-19 infection and related death.

Making work healthier matters now more than ever.

Addressing health inequity and improving unhealthy working conditions, and other social determinants of health, is an important ongoing goal to protect essential workers. Vaccination rates in the U.S. have stalled partly due to a large number of people who may be “vaccine-hesitant,” making it unlikely the U.S. or the world will reach “herd immunity” in the very near future. SARS-CoV2 is likely to become endemic. Those in essential jobs who are immunosuppressed, have comorbid conditions or remain unvaccinated, may well continue to get sick. Thankfully, there are workers, worker advocacy groups, and labor unions fighting to protect the health and safety of essential workers, during this pandemic and beyond.

May 2021 Tweet: NY Nurses Association member speaking
  • Workers Compensation: As of December 9, 2020, 17 states and Puerto Rico had extended workers’ compensation coverage of COVID-19 as a work-related illness for various workers. Despite these laws and orders that provide greater access to workers’ compensation for COVID-19, many claims continue to be held up or denied. Allowing workers who are ill to recover at home without loss of wages is essential to reduce worker stress related to economic insecurity, as well as to protect co-workers from further infection.
  • Community organizations are advocating for their members and working to establish guidelines for safe re-opening of workplaces, to protect both consumers and workers. For example, the California Healthy Nail Salon Alliances has released guidelines limiting the number of people in the salon, frequent and thorough disinfection between clients, reducing the amount of services offered to clients, as well as the right to refuse service for anyone who has been exposed to or is showing symptoms of the virus. These guidelines limit workload as well as exposure to the virus.
  • Public Health Councils: In November 2020, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a program for workers to form public health councils to help ensure employers follow COVID health & safety guidelines. Nonprofits and unions will train council members on health & safety protocols and how to report violations. Involving workers in addressing their health & safety concerns gives them greater “job control” and allows them to influence employer policies and is therefore potentially health protective.

Healthy work and healthy workplaces

Our goal is healthy work and healthy workplaces. So what is healthy work? People have a fundamental need to be valued, to use their skills, and have reasonable and fair job demands. Healthy work must also include a certain level of autonomy and “decision latitude”, that is having a say over how their job is done. Being treated with respect (not as expendable objects), respecting front-line knowledge & skills, and being part of an organization that is genuinely concerned with the health, safety and well-being of all workers, is all part of healthy work.

#healthywork #healthypeople



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store