The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered the way we work, and the way work is organized. Mandatory and voluntary lockdowns ushered in a new era of remote telework, as employers in the public, private, and non-profit sectors sought ways to adapt, continue their operations, and provide products and services to their customers, clients, members, and constituents. Workers deemed “essential” continued to report to their jobs — too often without adequate personal protective equipment and too often paying the price in illness and death (see here, here, here).
Now two years in, with establishments and offices beginning to open up, some workers are returning to very different physical workplaces. They are donning masks and may (or may not) find other public health safeguards in place, e.g., testing or vaccination requirements, barriers, social distancing, etc. And, finally, engineering controls like ventilation and air purification are getting the attention they deserve, given their place and effectiveness in the time-tested hierarchy of controls, now applied to COVID.
Telework Is Here to Stay
But while many workers venture out into changed work environments, many others will continue to work remotely from home, alone, often in makeshift spaces with repurposed furniture. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 36.2 million workers or 22% of Americans will be working remotely by the year 2025. This is an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels. For more information on teleworking rates and lost work in the U.S. during the pandemic, see the Bureau of Labor Statistics here. For information on the sociodemographic characteristics of U.S. workers who switched to telework during the pandemic, see the Census Bureau here. For a more international look at teleworking trends and prospects, see OECD here.
Telework put into place because of and now prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic has also come with a cost to some workers – isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, lack of social and coworker support, disrupted routines, and burnout.
Telework has its pros and cons, risks and benefits – especially in the current context. For some, telework was and remains a welcome innovation, a perk only available to some. It means no commute or commuting costs, no rigid work hours, more flexibility, and an ability to “balance” work and family obligations. But telework put into place because of and now prolonged by the COVID-19 pandemic has also come with a cost to some workers – isolation, loneliness, anxiety, depression, fatigue, lack of social and coworker support, disrupted routines, and burnout.
Enter “Resilience “
These negative impacts of telework have raised to prominence the concept of “Resilience” – basically the capacity to adapt well to difficult situations: in this case, adapting to the changes and challenges associated with telework and recognizing that it may be extended for a time or even become the “new normal” for some workers.
To foster resilience, many employers are providing ways to help their workers cope with burnout and develop resilience in the face of the pandemic and its intersecting challenges (see here and here.) These include, for example, mindfulness, self-care, and stress management training, access to mental health practitioners, and training courses in personal resilience. These efforts can be well-intentioned and welcomed by workers. They may also be helpful to the employers and companies that provide them, as a way to retain and help their teleworking and remote employees be as productive as possible.
Worker Resilience — What’s Missing?
But is something missing in these solutions?
Sociologist Fabienne Scandella addressed the missing element and the issue of “the resilient teleworker” in the latest volume of the European Trade Union Institute’s (ETUI) magazine, tracing the origins of the increasingly popular buzzword “resilience.” (ETUI also hosted a webinar on workplaces in the pandemic.)
On their face, these employer-sponsored and individual worker-focused resilience efforts can seem laudable, generous, pragmatic, and unworthy of any serious critique [and I certainly don’t want to denigrate their help and usefulness].
Individual worker-focused resilience efforts focus on the individual worker as the locus of change and control, when it’s often the demands, expectations, workload, lack of control, and other conditions of the work that are at the root of worker stress and need changing.
But, according to Scandella, there is a rub: They focus on the individual worker as the locus of change and control, when it’s often the demands, expectations, workload, lack of control, and other conditions of the work that are at the root of worker stress and need changing. The focus on individual workers avoids challenging and adapting the conditions and organization of work itself. Work is a collective experience, and its impacts should be viewed and addressed at that level.
My knowledge of worker/workplace/organizational resilience is limited, but there is clearly a need to critically examine the existing and emerging literature and develop guidance for ensuring the resilience of remote work. And the guidance must include and address the conditions of work under employer control. There is a lot to look at there.
As someone who has been sitting and working from my home kitchen table for the past two years, I plan to follow the issue and learn more. And I’m grateful to Scandella and ETUI for raising it.
Kathleen Rest is the former Executive Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists.