Work sucks when you’re the only one left

Not everyone quit during the Great Resignation, and those who stayed, are under strain from having to do more

Emily Stewart
Published Sun, Sep 18, 2022 · 04:17 PM

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 flood 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 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 “labour 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 labour 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.

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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 organisational 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. But she 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, 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 that 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.”

Mazzola pointed to a phenomenon called “organisational commitment”, where people feel attached to an organisation or, in this case, a place of work. Sometimes, people feel like they’re a part of helping the organisation 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 help customers. 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 abusively by customers.

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 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.

If there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, workers want to know when

Across industries, from health care to education to hospitality, workers say it’s just too much. 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.”

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.

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. VOX



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