Work

“It’s Been Hard Not to Roll My Eyes”

Essential workers are already over your whining about returning to work.

A woman in a mask and face shield works a cash register at a grocery store.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Pixfly/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

As employers start to set timelines for bringing workers back to the office, they’re setting off waves of anxiety in some of their employees, many of whom aren’t ready to return. That, in turn, is setting off some frustration and impatience among people who have been going into work all along and have dealt with the risks of in-person work for more than a year now.

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Many of these workers resent that people upset over being asked to return didn’t display the same concern for the safety of those who have been there all along. And they wonder why they’ve been left out of so much of the national narrative about what this year has been like for workers. They haven’t been stuck at home baking bread or going stir crazy from being cooped up with family members; they’re out risking their lives working with the public and/or in close quarters with colleagues every day, and they feel invisible in much of the conversation about pandemic life. More than anything, they’re deeply, deeply exhausted.

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Here’s what some of them have written to me about what this time has been like, and how this particular cultural moment—with many remote workers gearing up to return—feels like a slap in the face.

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It’s so jarring to listen to NPR, read the newspaper, and watch late night comedians, and hear over and over again about the perils of being stuck inside. For so many people (especially outside of the niche that tends to be national reporters and TV stars) that simply wasn’t our reality. For so long I heard about how to make staying in your house more bearable, but no one talked about how to interact in public and at work and negotiate differing norms and boundaries around COVID safety. I know my office wasn’t the only white-collar office in person, and I know millions of essential workers or other service industry workers were in person either the whole time or since April 2020, so this event really drove home for me that most national media is hindered by being based in only a few communities.

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For those of us that keep your lights on, your furnace running and your water hot (energy workers) there was no such thing as work from home. We had as many safety measures that could be managed and still do the job. But when your co-workers had to isolate/quarantine, were sick, or in one case died, there was/is no relief for those left working. This country has asked the absolute limit of essential workers. We have forgone time off in the last year because you need to have enough people working to cover those that cannot work. We are burned out: physically, emotionally, mentally.

As an RN who’s been at work this whole time, on my downtime when my family has had Zoom calls, etc., it’s been hard not to roll my eyes when people who have been holed up at home and never actually needing to venture out into the pandemic talk about how hard this experience has been on them. I get that it’s not easy, but I don’t feel that my experiences as an essential worker are even remotely comparable to someone who has been able to work from home, and there is often an element of self-awareness that is badly lacking when nonessential workers talk about their experiences and anxieties.

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The national narrative of “we’re all in this together” has been extremely alienating. All I hear about is people are bored at home, sick of their houses, they’ve read every book and watched every show, and I’m like, I would kill to have even a few days at home doing absolutely nothing! I am exhausted, to the point where there have been days I was writing an email and fell asleep at my desk midsentence. My team is exhausted. We have been working at what feels like a dead run for over a year now, and it’s only just now finally starting to settle into something resembling normal. For a while, I was doing my regular job, plus picking up shifts as a floor nurse in both the ED and the ICU. And the ICU was a nightmare. Every patient had COVID, and every patient was alone and dying. You weren’t “fixing” anyone, just trying to keep them alive another day, or make sure they didn’t die alone. When this all first started, we were “health care heroes” and people applauded every night and sent us truly ungodly amounts of food every day … and then suddenly something shifted and we were liars, agents of the deep state, promoters of a hoax, or just plain forgotten about. The heroes thing was weird, but the drastic end to it was even weirder. 

 So yeah, the whole “we’re all stuck at home” thing just makes me feel invisible. People being scared to go back to work actually makes sense to me, but it does seem a little, well, precious.

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I’m a teacher, and I’ve been in the building every day since September, albeit with half of my classes at a time. On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to people who are feeling anxious at the prospect of being in the office … but there’s definitely a hint of bitterness at knowing that some of these folks were the same people who had zero concern for my safety or that of my colleagues when they were insisting we reopen schools full time.

I’ve had to come into the office every day because of the nature of my job, but about 95 percent of our office has been WFH since the pandemic started. Which is great! It really is, I appreciate that my company did that, because it decreased their risk and less people means less risk for me. 

But, even if most of your job can be done from home, very few people have a job that can actually completely be done from home. So those of us who have to come in have been picking up that slack. And now that things are safer, the idea that I’m supposed to continue doing that extra work on top of my job because people don’t want to deal with it? Makes me want to scream and while I’m staying professional my opinion of people who have been complaining about having to come back in has gone down. 

The entire pandemic I’ve gotten to hear about co-workers WFH who would quarantine for two weeks, go visit family, the quarantine for two weeks when they got back. I never had that option. I haven’t gotten to hug my mom in over a year, and while I don’t want to make this the suffering Olympics I do want some acknowledgment that the people who were able to take advantage of working from home were able to do so because I made that sacrifice.

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Those of us who have been working on site consistently throughout the pandemic have had to deal with not only the fears of people returning now, but also the uncertainty and confusion and fear of dealing with all that when we knew almost nothing about the virus except that it was deadly. When we didn’t know how deadly, how contagious, or how to effectively prevent it. We have been handed the burden of supporting our entire communities through an unprecedented disaster, but not given any help handling that burden. And we have been doing so for over a year, much of that time when there was no end in sight.

Many of us have not only been dealing with this fear and stress, but have also been working grueling hours and/or doing emotionally exhausting work at the same time. A lot of us have had to become overnight experts in epidemiology because we were suddenly responsible for developing safety procedures for an unknown virus. Many of us have then had to do contact tracing for our own dying co-workers when the procedures we developed failed to protect them. Many of us have been subject to aggression, insults, rage, and contempt from people in our own communities when we failed to live up to their (impossible) expectations.

I’m not even afraid anymore. I ran out of fear six months ago. Now I’m just exhausted and angry and betrayed.

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I’ve been going to work at the hospital every day for the duration. … Things have improved in the sense that we’ve figured out a lot of the basics, such as telehealth appointments–we’re not reinventing our jobs constantly like we were a year ago. Everyone who was willing to get the vaccine has gotten it. Patients are no longer surprised at masking and distancing rules. We no longer have shortages of PPE and sanitizer. 

Things have worsened in the sense of wear and tear. We’ve been in emergency mode for over a year. Lots of my co-workers have health problems flaring up, causing short staffing from medical leave. People’s patience is often thin, and they snap at each other. Revenue losses have led to tighter budgets, at a time when we absolutely need more staff hours and other resources. Patients are generally faring worse or presenting with more severe conditions. 

I feel like my entire office could close for a month, just for us to rest, and it wouldn’t be too much. Yet there’s no end, or even break, in sight.

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I’ve been working on site for the majority of the pandemic, and outside of a few weeks, been taking mass transit. My mental health plummeted. I am constantly aware of my heartbeat. A few weeks after taking mass transit, I fainted at home. 

A lot of my friends are working from home, and many of them just don’t understand. I’ve said my goal this year is to make it through without a drinking problem. Sometimes people laugh, I’m not joking. And I get it, this is a bad year for everybody. But I think there’s also this thing where folks can’t see beyond their own experiences to imagine that things could be worse. 

I also worry, A LOT, that the narrative will develop that on-site workers took risks to their physical well-being, but WFH people took hits to mental health from the social isolation. And that ignores the massive, significant, measurable damage to mental health this year has been for on-site workers, and I feel neglected and ignored again, because I don’t have as good a job.

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As a RN who is high risk, I, like all my co-workers have gone to work in our hospital day in and day out. No allowances made based on risk factors. Shoulder to shoulder, with my fellow health care workers. We have reworn surgical masks for days. No N-95 masks available because the general public wanted them & literally stole them out of our Emergency rooms and clinics. Last week we finally got permission to throw our used surgical masks away after a day of use rather than keeping them & using them for three days. Patients can refuse to be screened for COVID and can refuse to wear a mask, and we continue to treat them. Our non-COVID unit has been shut down four separate times due to a patient becoming symptomatic & finally consenting to COVID testing (yep—unsurprisingly positive), which in-turn has infected staff. Short of staff, still.

So, yeah, the complaints from those who have been safely ensconced in their homes for the last year seem a little trivial by comparison. We’ve lost family, co-workers, and friends … took our two days off of bereavement leave, and then returned to take care of our community.

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I know that each of us has experienced trauma this past year. But can we please stop pretending that the trauma of working from home and not wanting to go back is the same as the trauma of never being able to be home in the first place? It is defeating at best to hear from people who have been safe at home for an entire year talk about how nervous they are to go back and the level of unawareness in some of the responses is dumbfounding. These are people who have asked others to sacrifice their health and safety so that they could have access to food, health care, and essential services. And now that the tide is shifting and returning to the office is possible, the narrative is focused on them again.

Essential workers have spent the last year exposed to hate and anger and the fear of dying. People not wanting to leave their home offices is not the same and the more that we pretend that it is, the more we ignore the burden put upon those out and working every single day.

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It’s been frustrating to read about people who’ve been able to work from home this entire time and are now acting like returning to the office is their worst nightmare when it’s been my life for a year. I can certainly sympathize—I don’t want anyone to be in that position, but it makes me so jealous that other people have had the privilege to not feel that panic until now, with the vaccines rolling out, when for the last year I’ve been deemed essential (I’m not) and forced to work with an elderly population that can’t stop taking their masks off to hear better and won’t stand in front of the plexiglass unless forced.

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I don’t wish job loss on anyone and I know being on unemployment is so, so hard. But it’s also valid for me and my co-workers to be frustrated at having to risk our health for less than unemployment wages. We got patted on the head for about a month as ‘heroes” and then everything went back to normal for us—my company’s $2/hour hazard bonus went away after three months. Customers became ruder than they were before because they assumed our supply chains were fully back to normal while not realizing that my orders were getting short-picked at least weekly because our warehouse was half-staffed. 

One of the other hardest things with being an essential grocery store worker is that it’s been way more isolating than most people realize. Close friends didn’t want me in their bubble because I couldn’t control my exposure and in friend Zoom calls I got stuck listening to everyone discuss their sourdough starters or what yoga video they did while I just sat there exhausted from working a 12-hour retail shift with nothing to contribute. I’m lucky to have a work team I’m close with and it helped, but it was really crushing to see people getting together and not being invited.

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