Hybrid work illustration
The Equity Issue

Who the Hybrid Work Revolution Is Leaving Behind

Alejandra Aguinaga enjoyed her job at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital. She felt a sense of accomplishment and purpose when she delivered food trays to hospital patients. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and suddenly being face-to-face with the patients she served brought a level of fear and apprehension she hadn’t experienced before.

“I was always paranoid [about getting sick], especially at the beginning,” Aguinaga acknowledges.

Now promoted to Nutrition Services Supervisor at Northwestern, she helps to ensure that patients’ dietary needs are met. Aguinaga and her team didn’t miss a beat, continuing to show up to work at the start of and during the heights of the pandemic.

She is one of the legions of workers for whom remote work is not an option; they cannot do their jobs from home. From grocery store workers, bankers, food service professionals, and healthcare personnel, they put their lives on the line—literally—to make sure our essential needs are met.

Although the world worked to make conditions safer as children schooled virtually, shoppers received deliveries, and numerous professionals worked remotely, a group of people was left behind in the technologically-aided hybrid work revolution: frontline workers. Their sacrifices allowed people to feed their families when shopping for groceries, pump gas to keep their cars running, and receive medical treatment if they needed it.

However, frontline workers deal with increased anxiety about getting sick, paranoia about bringing the virus home to their families, and stress about still needing to go out and pay the bills in the middle of a pandemic. With many essential worker positions occupied by lower-income people of color, their experience with being unable to work from home during COVID takes a toll on their physical, emotional, and mental health.

A Look at Frontline Workers' COVID Experience

Essential workers are those who perform a critical function. Government agencies highlight sixteen industries as providing necessary services where it’s not possible to do the job from another location; employees need to be hands-on and present. Emergency services, energy, food services, the communications sector, government facilities, and healthcare are just some of the critical areas.

Experts estimate there are over 30 million frontline workers in the United States.

On average, frontline workers earn less money and tend to be from more financially disadvantaged groups than the overall workforce. People of color are disproportionately represented in several essential care industries, including building cleaning services, social services, transit services, and warehouse jobs.

Yalda Safai, MD, MPH

This was an unprecedented event; we as a nation were not prepared or equipped to handle a disaster of such magnitude... The reality is we could not all stay at home or else we would be facing a disaster of even greater magnitude.

— Yalda Safai, MD, MPH

Like Aguinaga, many of those workers continued to show up once the pandemic hit, without a break in the action, because of the necessity of the services they provide.

“This was an unprecedented event; we as a nation were not prepared or equipped to handle a disaster of such magnitude,” states Yalda Safai, MD, MPH, a psychiatrist in New York City. “The reality is we could not all stay at home or else we would be facing a disaster of even greater magnitude,” she notes.

The inability to stay home, and the continual exposure to the public, cause essential workers to face additional dangers. “If you work in the hospital, you know that there’s going to be sick people all the time. So, you know you could be potentially exposed to something that you don’t want to be,” Aguinaga adds.

Studies show healthcare workers shoulder an increased risk of testing positive for COVID-19. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 180,000 health and care workers died from COVID-19 between January 2020 to May 2021.

Alejandra Aguinaga

If you work in the hospital, you know that there’s going to be sick people all the time. So, you know you could be potentially exposed to something that you don’t want to be.

— Alejandra Aguinaga

Many workplaces provided protective gear for their frontline employees, from masks to face shields. The risk factors, however, proved too great for some workers. In November 2021, the rate of people who quit their job increased 3%, to over 4 million workers. Frontline workers made up the majority of that increase.

Others stayed in their positions because of the commitment to their jobs and the people they served, and a sense of duty. For some, it boiled down to simple economics—the need for a paycheck.

Conversely, people who work from home don’t have to live with the virus in the same way on a daily basis. Zoom calls, grocery store and food deliveries, and even telehealth appointments allow people who could work in front of their computers to remain in the comfort of their homes. Not having to confront the reality of the virus in the same way day in and day out makes a difference. Essential workers are forced to deal with it every time they enter their workplace.

Facing an uneasy public in the face of an unpredictable virus took an unprecedented toll on essential workers’ mental health.

The Mental Health Impact

People all over the world feared contracting COVID. That fear multiplied exponentially for workers who couldn’t stay home. A 2021 study found that frontline workers experienced increased psychological distress as they worked while COVID-19 raged.

Although their fears have remained throughout the pandemic, they’ve intensified as workers watch the spikes in positive cases that variants like omicron bring.

“Every day the numbers just kept going up and up and up… So, I was a little nervous to see the numbers go up and then hearing the news and everybody just talking about it,” Aguinaga states.

Mental Health America notes that a 2020 survey of healthcare workers found that 93% were stressed out, 86% were dealing with anxiety, 76% experienced burnout and exhaustion, and 75% were overwhelmed from dealing with COVID-19.

When workers are able to handle tasks remotely and safely from the cocoon of their homes, it can remove a level of angst that essential workers still grapple with.

In addition to the concerns about their own safety, frontline workers deal with the extra worry of making sure they don’t take COVID-19 home to their families.  

Yalda Safai, MD

Anxiety about the issue of bringing the virus home is very real and on the rise. I have seen a rise in generalized anxiety not only for essential workers but also their families.

— Yalda Safai, MD

Like all of us who have been impacted, frontline workers have to find their own ways to cope with the mental and emotional stress the situation brings.

Living With This New Normal

Whether working remotely or on public transportation, we all have had to find ways to deal with the new normal of masks, social distancing, and COVID-19. It’s important not to deny your feelings; instead speak up and address your problems.

“Recognize when you need help and do not hesitate to seek help. This is an extremely stressful time in our careers so seeking out therapy or even medications to help get through this time, is ok and even necessary. Communicate with your co-workers and boss about your feelings,” Dr. Safai says. She also reminds people not to neglect their physical bodies. “Don't forget to eat right and exercise.”

Aguinaga notes that spending time with family and friends helps her unwind. She also states it’s important that she does not take her work home with her.

Despite the inherent and unseen dangers, for those committed to their jobs, there’s no place they’d rather be. Aguinaga says her commitment, dedication, and passion keep her coming back to work each day. And having her coworkers helps her feel less alone in battling the pandemic. Even if she had the option to work remotely, Aguinaga says she wouldn’t change a thing.

“I would still come in just so I don’t feel so isolated. I love speaking with the crew over here, with employees. It takes your mind off the pandemic,” she concludes.

It’s something we’re all trying to do.

Artwork by Catherine Song

7 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.
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