For a moment in early 2020, it seemed like we might get a break from capitalism.
A novel coronavirus was sweeping the globe, and leaders and experts recommended that the US pay millions of people to stay home until the immediate crisis was over. These people wouldn’t work. They’d hunker down, take care of their families, and isolate themselves to keep everyone safe. With almost the whole economy on pause, the virus would stop spreading, and Americans could soon go back to normalcy with relatively little loss of life.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
Instead, white-collar workers shifted over to Zoom (often with kids in the background), and everybody else was forced to keep showing up to their jobs in the face of a deadly virus. Hundreds of thousands died, countless numbers descended into depression and burnout, and a grim new standard was set: Americans keep working, even during the apocalypse.
Now it’s been nearly two years since the beginning of the pandemic — a time that has also encompassed an attempted coup, innumerable extreme weather events likely tied to climate change, and ongoing police violence against Black Americans — and we’ve been expected to show up to work through all of it. “I don’t think people are well,” says Riana Elyse Anderson, a clinical and community psychologist and professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. “We are moving along but we are certainly not well.”
For some Americans, working during the apocalypse is fatal — think of the transit workers who died from Covid-19 in 2020, or the Amazon warehouse workers killed by a tornado on December 10 in Illinois. “All disasters are workplace disasters for some people,” said Jacob Remes, a historian and the director of the Initiative for Critical Disaster Studies at New York University. For others, the effects are more of a slow burn; the chronic stress that comes with putting on a game face at work, day in and day out, as the world becomes ever more terrifying.
Of course, Americans haven’t all quietly accepted the demand that we work through the end times. Record numbers are quitting their jobs in search of higher pay and better conditions. After more than 20 months of being asked to keep showing up uncomplainingly while everything crumbles around them, people are demanding a more humane approach to work in the age of interlocking crises.
A disaster, whether it’s the pandemic or climate change or the existential threat to democracy or all of the above, “can help us to understand the ordinary structures of work differently,” Remes said. The conditions we find ourselves in today, dark as they are, are an opportunity to remake American culture around an ethic of care rather than productivity, so that we can face the next disaster together — rather than being forced to ride it out in isolated cubicles.
Since the pandemic began, workers in America have faced “compounding and continuous” crises, Anderson said. There’s the threat of the virus itself, which has taken a devastating toll on front-line workers, with line cooks, warehouse employees, and agricultural workers at especially high risk of death in 2020. The first waves of the virus also brought economic hardship in the form of job insecurity, slashed hours, and depleted savings, anxieties that fell especially hard on Black and Latinx workers who had less wealth than white ones to begin with, and who were less likely to receive federal assistance in the form of PPP loans.
As Covid-19 raged, Americans witnessed the murder of George Floyd and ongoing police violence against Black Americans, a reminder that the pandemic was not “the only threat to Black life,” as Anderson put it. At the same time, then-President Donald Trump refused to say whether he’d accept the results of the 2020 election, stoking widespread fear over the fate of American democracy. Then, when he did lose the election, his followers stormed the Capitol in an insurrection that left five people dead.
That day, a tweet asking if we were really “supposed to be working during the coup” went viral, as workers questioned whether we were still expected to be productive while the highest levels of American government appeared to be crumbling before our eyes.
A friend just said to me "Are we supposed to be working during the coup?" and honestly it was the most American thing I've ever heard.— Sleigh my Name (@thequeengeek) January 6, 2021
“This is the black heart of productivity culture: the maniacal focus on the individual capacity to produce elides the external forces that could (and should!) short-circuit our concentration and work ethic,” Anne Helen Petersen, co-author of the book Out of Office, wrote at the time. “If we had time and space to process the tragedies of daily life, if we gave ourselves permission for deep empathy — then maybe we’d have the fortitude and will to fight for the changes that would actually make the world less traumatic.”
Then the coup was over. Some companies gave employees extra days off, or expanded mental health options, or yoga classes. But mostly, it was business as usual. The answer to whether Americans were expected to work during the coup was: basically, yeah.
Since then, the crises have kept compounding. A new variant of the coronavirus stalks the globe, stoking fear and uncertainty in leaders and ordinary people alike. Tornadoes killed at least 90 people across six states in December in what one federal official warned will be the “new normal” due to climate change. American democracy looks ever more at risk, with experts warning that the country is “sleepwalking” toward a future in which votes no longer matter.
Workers haven’t just been sitting still through all this: They’ve been quitting jobs in record numbers all year long. Those numbers have included many low-wage workers who left for better-paying jobs, as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson reports. Indeed, workers next year could experience the biggest pay increase since 2008. Thousands are also striking or joining unions to take back at least some power from their employers. And Americans from office workers to Olympians are speaking out about the importance of prioritizing their mental health.
However, talk of the so-called Great Resignation often ignores the experiences of people who might want to quit but don’t have the savings (or inherited wealth) to risk walking out on a job, Anderson noted. Meanwhile, even if wages are rising, that doesn’t mean employers or the country at large have figured out how to handle work in an age of constant disaster.
At the extreme end, the expectation that people keep working no matter what’s going on around them can lead to their deaths. Some workers at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory in Kentucky said they were told they would be fired if they left their posts, even as deadly tornadoes approached. They and workers at an Illinois Amazon warehouse were, “in effect, compelled to work by the almost sovereign power of their respective employers, with horrific consequences for them, their families and their communities,” Jamelle Bouie wrote in the New York Times.
The pressures of work in the 21st century can also have subtler effects. For example, environmental and labor economist R. Jisung Park and his team have found that extreme heat, a more common occurrence thanks to climate change, leads to an increase in workplace injuries like falls and chemical spills. “If you’re in a baseline dangerous working environment, temperature is just one of many variables that might just make it incrementally harder to sustain focus and avoid injury,” Park said.
That’s true not just in outdoor occupations like construction or agriculture, but in workplaces like warehouses that may lack air conditioning or other climate control, Park added.
Then there are the emotional and psychological consequences of trying to get your job done, day in and day out, during unceasingly chaotic times. Because of the pandemic and climate change, people are being forced to continually evaluate and reevaluate their risk tolerance, Remes said. Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? To send a child to day care? To take the subway?
Making these kinds of calculations all the time is exhausting and takes a toll on mental health. The “constant, low-level stress” of slow-moving disasters like the melting polar ice caps can make everything more difficult, including work, Remes said. “It makes it harder for people to be productive, because they’re worrying about their basement flooding.”
Seventy percent of respondents in one September survey said they were anxious or stressed about work, and 81 percent said they were more burnt out than at the start of the pandemic. Among Americans of color, who have experienced many of the pandemic’s interlocking crises most acutely, “depression and anxiety and stress are spiking in ways that are disproportionate to their peers,” Anderson said.
Companies have made some effort to acknowledge the problem. As Petersen notes, many white-collar employers have sent out emails to workers along the lines of “feel free to take some time if you need to.”
Such messages can ring hollow, though, when every day is more frightening than the next — after more than 20 months of a pandemic, how do we even know when we need to take time? Moreover, those who need a break the most are probably the least likely to be offered one — nobody in the Mayfield factory was given the opportunity to “take time.”
Experts say what’s needed is, at minimum, a new approach to employee well-being and, at a maximum, a full rethinking of the meaning of work in America.
Companies can start by taking the onus off individual employees and offering time off to everyone in difficult times. Even if management encourages people to take time off, employees may fear repercussions if they actually do it, Anderson pointed out — plus they’ll be coming back to a mountain of work on their return. A better strategy is to simply give time off to all employees without requiring them to request it. Nike, for example, gave all office employees a week off earlier this year, and Bumble and LinkedIn enacted similar policies.
Beyond time off, more companies are also offering wellness perks from art classes to visits from therapy dogs, said Rebecca Rice, a professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, who studies how organizations work during emergencies. Such extras can be nice, but ultimately they’re “a temporary fix to a broader feeling of everyone being overextended,” Rice said.
Employers need to understand that today’s slate of overlapping crises “is a new normal that perhaps requires different standards,” Rice explained. That means having “honest conversations with employees about what work is necessary and a priority and what work is not for right now.” That could mean a daily meeting happens only three days a week — or never.
These conversations are starting to happen in white-collar workplaces but have yet to permeate as much into lower-wage and service-sector work. While more companies institute time off for office workers, some Amazon warehouse employees say the company uses a high-tech monitoring system to watch their every move and goad them into working faster.
Tighter labor regulations, including those governing work in extreme weather, could help protect workers whose employers have not so far shown an interest in protecting them. More broadly, the disasters of the last two years should prompt a reexamination of what work is really for, some say. For Remes, the pandemic has shown the importance of care labor, from teaching to elder care to nursing. “That should actually be the essential thing that we do with our lives,” he said. “Everything else should support that as opposed to that care and maintenance supporting the production of consumer goods.”
Reorienting the American economy around care would mean fairly compensating workers in fields like child care and elder care, which routinely pay poverty-level wages. It would also mean providing other workers with the paid leave, flexibility, and reasonable schedules necessary for them to attend to their own care responsibilities at home.
Overall, surviving the disasters of the 21st century will require a new kind of strength from Americans — not the dogged persistence to keep doing our jobs while the world falls down around us, but the empathy and generosity to come together to stop the collapse. As Remes put it, “nothing is possible when we all have to pretend to be independent all the time.”