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The Work-Life Issue

Blue Collar Work and The Mental Toll of Physical Labor

A report commissioned by the American Psychological Association found that high numbers of U.S. employees experienced work-related stress in 2021, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nobody was immune to it, but it seems that blue-collar workers (e.g. those working in construction, manufacturing, and maintenance) may have been the hardest hit. 

“Blue-collar workers are on the front lines dealing with the brunt of the pandemic and have been the ones putting their health at greater risk than, say, a deskbound, remote worker,” says Amy Jenkins, the director of client strategy with theEMPLOYEEapp, a mobile app made for employers to reach their deskless and frontline workforce.

Impact of COVID-19 on Blue-Collar Workers

Jenkins believes that the pandemic highlighted, for many organizations, the inequity between frontline workers and corporate employees. “Many organizations did not do a good job of acknowledging the gap or communicating with both sets of employees effectively,” she says.

For example, many companies closed corporate offices so employees could work safely from home. These employees were able to care for their families, get new equipment to ensure they could continue working from home, and could even continue earning their paychecks if they had tested positive for COVID-19. “Most remote corporate workers get sick days, and even if they get sick, they can still work from home and don’t even need to take paid time off,” Jenkins says. 

On the other hand, frontline employees at the same organization would have been required to go into a facility every day, risk exposure to COVID-19, and, in turn, risk their family’s exposure. 

Dan Kalish is the founder and owner of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP, the largest plaintiff’s employment law firm in the United States. “Over the past several years, our firm has spoken to several hundred blue-collar employees who have told us about the anxiety that they are feeling, including how the pandemic has affected their stress and their work,” Kalish says. 

While white-collar employees could work from home, blue-collar workers didn’t have that option. “Many lost their jobs, and others got COVID-19 because they had to work around others before vaccinations were available,” says Kalish.

Impact of Physical Labor

The mental health disparity between blue-collar workers and their white-collar counterparts existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. A retrospective cohort study, published in Epidemiology, found that blue-collar workers were more likely to be treated for depression than white-collar workers. 

The physical demand on blue-collar workers has been identified in previous research as an independent risk factor for depression and anxiety.

Dan Kalish, owner of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP

Many lost their jobs, and others got COVID-19 because they had to work around others before vaccinations were available.

— Dan Kalish, owner of HKM Employment Attorneys LLP

Blue-collar workers have always been subjected to more health risks than white-collar workers by virtue of disparities in workplace environments, says Jordan Carlton Schaul, PhD, a systems coach and consultant who has a background in public health. "Higher densities of people in factories compared to office spaces in conjunction with more constraints on ventilation and personal space, for example, exposes blue-collar workers to more health risks and hazards," Carlton Schaul explains.

Of course, physical activity is considered to be beneficial for mental health. But research has demonstrated that work-related physical activity may not have the same benefits as physical activity in other areas, such as leisure time. One study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that higher amounts of work-related physical activity are associated with poor physical health and an increased risk of early mortality.

Experts agree that the key to physical labor is balance. Too little physical labor and people can become lethargic, bored, and even depressed. But too much physical labor clearly isn't healthy either. And it's harder for blue-collar workers to strike that balance. "Their schedules may consist of labor-intensive 9 to 5 workdays, which offer little downtime," says Carlton Schaul.

Post-Pandemic Life for Blue-Collar Workers

Not all blue-collar workers were able to work throughout the lockdown, so as the country opens up again, many of them have the chance to return to work. “There is now a high demand for many labor-intensive projects since many consumers were waiting on various projects until after the pandemic,” says Kalish. 

But Jenkins still has concerns. “I know so many frontline/blue-collar workers who felt disposable during the height of the pandemic, and they still haven’t mentally recovered from that,” she says. 

Of course, getting back to a sense of “normal” in all aspects of our lives is good for everyone, blue-collar workers included. But as Jenkins points out, it will take very intentional strategies and communication within organizations to rebuild trust. 

Amy Jenkins, the director of client strategy with theEMPLOYEEapp

I know so many frontline/blue-collar workers who felt disposable during the height of the pandemic, and they still haven’t mentally recovered from that.

— Amy Jenkins, the director of client strategy with theEMPLOYEEapp

Carlton Schaul believes a big focus should be on addressing post-traumatic stress. "The psychosocial stressors placed on our blue-collar workforce as a consequence of the pandemic may linger for a long time and present not just a welfare burden but an economic one," he says. "If we teach people to develop healthier habits and lifestyles, we can ultimately reduce negative outcomes associated with both chronic and infectious disease."  

Supporting Blue Collar Workers in the Long Term

Experts agree that at both a higher and lower level, there needs to be additional support and protections for blue-collar workers. "Not surprisingly, they were the ones that were lost in the shuffle during the pandemic," says Kalish. "The support includes additional unemployment benefits if a crisis like this occurs in the future, along with safety requirements to ensure that they can work in a location that is safe and free from health hazards."

Jenkins points out that it was our frontline teams' continued effort to build products, care for patients, stock shelves, make deliveries, etc., that kept companies afloat during the height of the pandemic and allowed them to be successful today.

However, many of the "return to work" strategies emphasized corporate employees and how the pandemic impacted them. "If we truly want to make things better for blue-collar/frontline workers, it's important for companies also to show appreciation for and commitment to the employees who never left—employees to whom corporate employees, in many ways, owe their current jobs," Jenkins says. 

She sees a great opportunity for organizations to re-evaluate the overall experience they create for employees across all business sectors, from benefits to perks to working conditions, and ensure that frontline and blue-collar workers are included equally.

"I also hope to see frontline workers' voices brought into important conversations and frontline managers receiving tools and resources to support their employees better and create experiences for them that build loyalty and long-term careers,' Jenkins adds. "I would love to see leaders commit to offering blue-collar employees the same access to healthcare, vacation policies, family leave, etc., that will fulfill their basic needs—things that corporate or desk-bound employees simply take for granted."

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Psychological Association. The American workforce faces compounding pressure.

  2. Elser H et al. Gender, depression, and blue-collar work: A retrospective cohort study of U.S. aluminum manufacturers. Epidemiology. 2020 May. doi: 10.1097/EDE.0000000000000993

  3.  DeSanto IJ et al. Effects of externally rated job demand and control on depression diagnosis claims in an industrial cohort. American Journal of Epidemiology. 2010 Feb. doi:10.1093/aje/kwp359

  4. Coenen P et al. Do highly physically active workers die early? A systematic review with meta-analysis of data from 193 696 participants. Br J Sports Med. 2018 May. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2017-098540

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.