When I reached out to Paige to talk about a post she’d written online about feeling stretched at work, she first had a question for me: Was I her boss secretly trying to trick her? She was a “little paranoid” about it, and rightly so — the Oregon receptionist has not exactly had the warmest feelings about her place of work lately.
Paige, who asked to withhold her last name in order to retain said job for now, has felt extremely overworked lately. She was initially hired in late 2021 to work part time at a local medical office, but they’ve since lost a ton of employees — the last receptionist on staff besides her just quit (when she started, there were four). She now works 12-hour days, spending her lunch hour at her desk since there’s no one to cover for her, and when she asks about what’s going on, she’s told to be a “team player.”
Recently, it seemed like there would be some reprieve when the office made a new hire, but the person was let go after three days because the manager — the owner’s daughter — didn’t get along with them. “The vibes weren’t good,” Paige said she was told. But, as she said, “Vibes don’t matter when you literally have employees that are struggling.”
There has been no shortage of stories about the Great Resignation, the Great Reshuffle, or whatever you want to call it. The rate of people quitting their jobs has declined somewhat, but it still remains above pre-pandemic norms. There are still about two job openings per every unemployed worker in the United States. The labor market remains incredibly tight.
There has also been no shortage of stories about the impact all of this is having on consumers. Air travel sucks. Restaurant service is a disaster. Customers are throwing full-blown hissy fits in public.
What does this add up to for the workers still on the job, trying to make their situations work under increasingly tight and stressful conditions? The “labor leftovers,” if you will, are being asked to do the same amount of work or more in order to compensate for their current situations. And, to put it plainly, it sucks.
Millions of workers — blue-collar and white-collar — feel pushed to the brink right now. They are overworked, disengaged, and burnt out. And many, despite a labor market with mobility, feel like there’s no end in sight. It’s still hard for many people to find a job, and when they do get to a new place, some find it’s the same situation: too much work to go around with too few workers to complete it.
Work stress and overwork impacts people’s lives outside the workplace in myriad ways, said Joseph Mazzola, associate professor of psychology at Meredith College and an expert in industrial and organizational psychology. He noted that evidence shows life satisfaction can be fairly equally predicted by satisfaction with one’s spouse and with one’s boss. “We know burnout is linked to mental health issues like depression and anxiety and linked to physical issues. It can eventually lead to heart attacks, hypertension, and a number of terrible things. But even in the short term, it leads to more symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, even body aches,” he said.
In Paige’s case, it’s just meant she’s not taking care of herself physically in the way she probably should. She recently got sick. She told her boss she had strep throat, hoping that would mean she would only need to miss Friday at work, spend the weekend recovering, and be back on Monday. Her boss wouldn’t allow her to call out unless she got a note from her doctor. So she did — and it turns out she had Covid-19, meaning she had to be out for longer. “I got so much shit at work following that,” she said.
Paige feels like she can’t quit, not because she really needs her job (her partner could support them for a while), but because it needs her. “If I leave, they will be absolutely screwed,” she said. At least they’ve raised her pay a little bit. If she does manage to leave, it’s not like whoever replaces her is in for a fun ride.
Do more, just with less — Signed, your boss
At the outset of the pandemic, employers laid off workers in droves. Now, they’ve had a hard time staffing back up, or in some cases, they don’t want to, at least entirely. Many companies have figured out they can do more with less. Amid fears of a recession on the horizon — on top of a tight labor market — some are holding off on hiring until they see how it shakes out, or letting attrition take its toll.
“On one hand yeah, maybe the employer’s like, ‘Yes, great, now more people are available to hire,’ but the business mindset might win out is more of, ‘Do I want to take that risk if economic growth is slowing down?’” said AnnElizabeth Konkel, senior economist at Indeed Hiring Lab. “If your team was able to operate with a smaller number, do you need more people? Maybe not.”
That’s been the experience for Kate, a marketing coordinator at a Pennsylvania engineering firm who, like all of the workers I spoke to for this story, requested anonymity in order to protect their privacy and jobs. Over her nearly two decades at the firm, her department has gotten leaner and leaner — it was 10, then it was five, now it is two. “More staff kept leaving and kept leaving, and we couldn’t find new people,” she said. Many of her former colleagues have gone into different fields altogether.
Kate keeps trying to get across to her superiors that she cannot produce the workload expected of her, but said she is repeatedly told she’s just “gotta chip in” for the team. “I have all these deadlines through this week, and there’s only so many hours,” she said. Her bosses ask her to complete 10 tasks; she explains that she can only do three, so they’ll have to choose; and then they just … don’t. She puts in the hours to get all 10 done, but the quality is lacking. “One thing I’m really worried about is I’m going to make a big mistake.”
“What I keep thinking about is, what if everyone I worked with just worked eight hours? How many employees would they have to hire to fill in?” she said. Kate has browsed other job listings, but wonders what guarantee there is that a new job would be any different. “I’ve looked at other companies and just think, ‘well, it’s just more of the same somewhere else.’”
Companies are in a bit of a catch-22 situation in their staffing, Konkel said. Employers may be able to entice new people through the door by offering hiring bonuses, extra pay, etc. “But their staff is stretched really thin,” she said, “and then more people quit, and it’s a cycle that goes on.”
Nicholas, who until recently worked as a production scheduler for a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania, is one of those workers who finally gave in and quit — leaving just one person behind in his department. He’d been with the company for 17 years, working his way up from the factory floor to the front office. Not only was he overworked from his front-office job, but as a scheduler, he had a birds-eye view into what was happening with workers across the company. “They had a real problem toward the end with the amount of overtime they wanted people to work and how receptive the general workers were to that,” he said.
Workers grew so tired, he said, it got to the point that about 75 percent of people were even showing up every day. And because the company was so short-staffed, there wasn’t much to be done. “They were just so desperate to keep people, I don’t think there was much discipline going on,” he said.
In 2021, he put in a request to limit his own hours to 45 hours a week and was written up for it, which “pretty much negated any yearly pay increase for me,” he said. So he started looking for a new job, and after an eight-month search, he found one. He sent what he describes as an “epic” letter on his way out, calling out his department for an “environment of hostility and unprofessionalism,” and informing his counterpart — now the only person on his team — that she was “drastically” underpaid. He now has a job in the public sector, where he said he’s making more money, doing less work, and loving it.
The tight labor market lends to this overarching narrative that it is relatively easy for workers to pick up and leave their jobs if they’re unhappy. This was the case for Nicholas, and one economist I spoke to even suggested this was the solution. But the reality for many workers is much more complicated.
Mazzola pointed to a phenomenon called “organizational commitment,” where people feel attached to an organization or, in this case, a place of work. Sometimes, people feel like they’re a part of helping the organization achieve its goals. Or, they worry about what they might lose in leaving a job — benefits or compensation or stability — and that holds them back. Or they feel a sense of guilt about exiting, worrying that there will be consequences for the company or for their colleagues.
The good news, at least in part, is that the pandemic has brought some of these longstanding issues to the forefront. “To see people talk about burnout, to see them tell their employers they want work-life balance, is good,” Mazzola said. “Whether or not we’ve made strides on people being less burned out, that still remains to be seen.”
Dealing with customers in this environment: Not so fun
If you are not feeling overextended at work (if so, congratulations), you have undoubtedly noticed that workers at the places you frequent are. Take a look around next time you go to the pharmacy, where there are probably a handful of people on staff; one working the register, one restocking, and one running around trying to unlock all the deodorant and shampoo that stores have decided to lock up as part of a “loss prevention” strategy they’re not staffed enough to execute. Or maybe you’ve made a mistake at the self-checkout and now have to wait for assistance, in which case, good luck.
Many consumers are, understandably, finding themselves frustrated with staff shortages causing longer waits and worse service across multiple sectors. Workers in those sectors often bear the brunt of that frustration, so on top of being overworked, they’re treated cruelly and even abusively by customers. And American consumers do not exactly have the best reputation for being extra-considerate in the first place.
When the pandemic hit, the convenience store Nichole works for in Wisconsin “just ran with who we had” and kept open with their limited staff. Customers were less than thrilled. “A lot of people in the world are very angry, and they’re not understanding that we’re short-staffed, so they don’t like to wait in line for an extra few minutes. And then they take it out on us, and we get yelled at,” she said. “The morale goes down when we get yelled at every day by customers.”
She’s an assistant manager and estimates she’s putting in an extra 25 to 30 hours each week because they can’t find people to hire — and because she wants to give her burnt-out staff some reprieve. “I can’t ask them to put even more hours in,” she said. She’s a single mother of two, so she also feels guilty that when she gets to be with her children, they don’t do much because she’s so tired.
While the vast majority of people in the country spend much of their lives as workers, many Americans still view themselves primarily as consumers. Through that consumer lens, they often have excessively high expectations — expectations they’ve sort of been trained into by companies. When those expectations aren’t met, they experience it as a loss. The customer has been told for decades that they’re always right, they’ve come to believe it, and now that they’re met with snags in that framework, they lash out.
“Other countries have a more balanced view on ‘the customer is always right,’ and that’s somewhere that we can dig in as a society,” Melissa Swift, US transformation leader at Mercer, a work consultancy firm, told me in an interview earlier this year. “Why do we believe that? That doesn’t have to be a baseline assumption.”
Nichole said her store has had two workers walk out of the job because of rude customers recently. When I asked her what she wanted consumers to know about workers in situations like hers, she said to “maybe find a way to get the word out there to people that we’re short-staffed so that we’re not getting yelled at.” She had an addendum: “If you’re going to be a dick, don’t come back.”
If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, workers want to know when
Kevin, a professor at a midsized university in the Midwest, saw many of his colleagues and administrative staff let go at the start of the pandemic, and on top of the normal turnover, staffing rates just haven’t rebounded. He finds himself spending hours trying to help contractors navigate IT issues instead of where he’s supposed to be: teaching in the classroom. “Everybody’s like, ‘We’re all doing more with less,’ and it’s like, okay, but when are we not going to be doing more with less?” he said. “You can always deal with things when there’s some sort of end date to it, but right now, it doesn’t feel like there’s an end date.”
The pandemic has, of course, contributed to much of worker burnout, but that’s not the only thing in play here. While workers currently are supposed to have more power than they have in recent years because the labor market is so tight, for many of them, work hasn’t really changed much at all, or has gotten worse. Structurally, policy solutions that could give workers some more weight in the employer-employee dynamic — such as making it easier to unionize or updating the unemployment insurance system — haven’t happened.
And so, things are worse. When there’s one server at a restaurant trying to do the work of what used to be three, it’s annoying for that server and for the diners. The office worker now working remotely might enjoy the time they’re saving in their commute, but many are just filling that supposedly saved time with longer hours because they are now a team of one. It’s a bad situation for everyone involved — well, almost everyone.
On perhaps the broadest level, the point of a company is to make money for its owners and its shareholders. That can translate to a dynamic of trying to squeeze as much out of workers for as little as possible. Squeezing them may not make them more productive — as Mazzola explained, longer working hours can actually lead to less productive workers over time — but it might still mean more money for the people at the top. Even if things are worse for customers and workers, paying less in wages for nearly the same productivity is a boon for balance sheets.
The situation isn’t a particularly new one — long before the pandemic, many employers have been pulling as much as possible from their workers, piling task upon task on them that often used to be shared responsibilities. Now, more workers are starting to reach their breaking points, or at least to talk about it. But talking about the burden only goes so far if the burden — and the extractive, capitalistic system at the root of it — isn’t addressed.