Essential workers weren’t necessarily lost, but it feels like they’ve been found. We’ve found new ways to acknowledge them. We’ve found new ways of appreciating them. We’ve found new ways of celebrating their role in keeping us all safe. We’ve rediscovered their necessity and importance. The COVID-19 pandemic has enabled this important emergence to occur, shining a light on things that have been happening modestly below the radar for some time.
This 52INSIGHTS examines the current culture of championing frontline workers and essential workers, with a spotlight on youth employees.
‘ESSENTIAL WORKERS’ RIGHTS & STRIKES
“There is unanimity across markets (90% globally) that people want brands to do everything they can to protect the well-being and financial security of their employees and suppliers, even if it means substantial financial losses until the pandemic ends.” Edelman
Some young people are getting pulled in to help out with family businesses that are struggling, while managing college classes and assignments. Others are having their eyes opened widely to health-related privilege, especially in places like Africa and India, or in refugee camps, where even being able to ‘social distance’ is privilege. When it comes to work, statistically, lower paid workers, female workers and younger workers are likely to be hit hardest by the COVID-19 lockdown:
“Workers aged under 25 are about two and a half times as likely to work in a sector forced to suspend trade. Companies closed under the government’s social distancing measures employed nearly a third (30%) of all employees under 25, not including full-time students who also have a job. This compares with just one in eight (13%) of workers aged 25 and over.” Institute for Fiscal Studies
There are also many young workers who are deemed ‘essential.’ From nurses to grocery and delivery workers, there are a huge number of young people putting themselves at risk on the frontlines of the pandemic everyday. Amazon workers are now on strike for the second week in a row. They are walking off the job, demanding the workspace is fully sanitised. Wholefoods staff have staged a nation-wide ‘sick out’ in response to the company trying to avoid paying sick pay. What these kinds of actions are ultimately calling for, is better protection and less risk. By doing this, it’s raising awareness about worker issues - within and outside the gig economy.
Young essential workers whose jobs are more secure, like those in the health service, are feeling the increased attention to their work right now, and are simply hoping that the gratitude continues and translates into long-term improvements:
“I am very grateful for the attention and support frontline workers have been receiving throughout this crisis. Unfortunately though at the same time it makes me sad to think that it has taken something as serious as this for us to receive the respect and appreciation we deserve. I’m hoping that once this pandemic is over improvements will continue to be made in the healthcare system; particularly in regards to the pay and conditions of its staff.” Alice, 24
Post COVID-19, expect to see a re-balancing of reward away from the traditional money makers. Does it really make sense that a hedge fund manager 'earns' bonuses in the hundreds of thousands when a student nurse is putting her life at risk taking care of said hedge fund manager's parent, on just above minimum wage?
YOUNG HEALTHCARE WORKERS
Younger generations of workers in healthcare roles are facing specific challenges. Some are still living at home with older parents, and others are really feeling an added weight of responsibility and pressure that they didn’t have before:
“Working in a children’s hospital, we face different challenges right now; it feels like the calm before the storm and we don’t know where we stand. Children are often frightened by the PPE and with visiting restrictions only one parent or guardian may be present, which is extremely difficult and frustrating for them! We know that children often show no symptoms of this disease so every day coming home from long shifts I fear that unknowingly the virus could have been transferred on to me and then to my parents whom I live with.” Alannah, 25
“It’s a scary time and very stressful because you’re trying to keep yourself safe and everyone else safe. It’s a big responsibility. I’m getting straight in the shower after every shift. It’s tough too because we don’t know how long this is going to continue.” Sophia, 25
Youth on the frontlines are adapting to these new concerns and the tougher aspects of their roles, while also putting out positive energy and finding ways to keep their spirits up. Nurses like Kala Baker in the US are going viral on TikTok for doing dance challenges on their breaks:
“It’s been a little bit stressful around here… It was a good way to just step away from our work for a second and bring some joy to the people around us and do something fun with our co-workers.”
Despite facing scary realities, communities of workers are coming together in powerful ways - showing those who applaud their resilience and bravery a little bit more of what makes us human. COVID-19 has revealed windows giving us a clearer glimpse into one other’s daily lives. All of us should take the time to look through, and respond accordingly.
EMPLOYEE RECOGNITION & POSITIVE RESPONSES
There are countless examples of incredible responses from businesses who are putting staff’s safety as the number one priority, adapting to new ways of working and showing their appreciation to staff who are all adjusting to the new world of work. There’s an endless list of brands who are showing up, outside their category, to support frontline workers with PPE, food or practical support with the likes of accommodation.
When the chips are down employers are also getting to see what young staff are made of. At times like this, structures flatten as businesses respond to the challenges they face. Juniors work alongside senior leaders, earning an opportunity to demonstrate their true potential, and value. Employers are reporting seeing their younger staff 'rise to the challenge' and the emergence of the true stars and leaders within their teams. Fast thinking, action-oriented effective staff are making an impact, at pace. The kindness, empathy and supportive nature of people is truly tested. This presents employers with a strong sense of their long term 'future stars' - something a year long HR programme might not have delivered.
In general, there is a greater recognition of the role all workers play in terms of contributing to society and how we all need each other to function. This is inviting a broader recognition of people’s power and agency as individuals. Youth can see more clearly now how one person can make a real difference - whether that’s through big actions like working on the frontlines or small actions like staying in on the couch.
When this is all over people will remember who was looking out for them and who wasn’t. The importance of support and safety for workers cannot be overstated. It’s important for employers and companies to take responsibility. This involves taking a step back and listening actively and empathetically to ongoing feedback, concerns and challenges - from different perspectives. Employees all have different home and family setups - so challenges will vary from individual to individual. Responses need to be inclusive and recognise the diverse nature of these challenges too. Listen and take action.
What does ‘doing the right thing’ mean for you right now? Think about the essential workers that are keeping your business or brand operational right now. How could you help them?
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