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  • Writer's pictureNeal Dlin

The Great Awakening - How the Pandemic is Busting Old Perceptions of Job Importance

Author: Neal Dlin - Founder and Chief Human Experience Officer

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it's that there is a great awakening happening and it's one that is long overdue.

As someone who helps companies design better employee experiences and journeys, I am often witness to the systemic, even if unintentional, perpetuation of class systems in hierarchies, industries and professions.

Simply put, people in entry level roles, customer facing, frontline, retail workers, hospitality workers and industries or professions considered blue collar are largely treated and thought of as “less than”, even if only subconsciously.

"Less than" anyone above them in a company hierarchy. Less than anyone with a formal academic degree. Less than others in roles society says are more noble. To be blunt, less than human.

I do not say this for dramatic effect. What has happened is that these people's function, which the pandemic has demonstrated is critical to society and enabled the rest of society to continue on in relative safety, was prioritized over their safety and needs. "Do the work" to protect everyone else, while having the most risk, getting paid the least, balancing kids in virtual school, with less resources, with no choice and all while still being treated as dispensable. If I am wrong that they are thought of/treated as less than human, I wish someone could explain how else this could be acceptable to the rest of society?

Let's expand on the circumstances that are shining this light, contributing to the Great Awakening

During this pandemic, regardless of wether you agree with different tactics world leaders have used or question their political motivations, the basic strategy was to protect people’s health, reduce deaths, reduce strain on the medical systems and to avoid economic collapse.

This resulted in varying degrees of lockdowns, masks, vaccines, work from home mandates, etc. It's easy to debate the efficacy or the fallout, but the point was, let’s take people out of harms way while allowing society to continue to function.

Except, to do that, some were put directly in harms way with little to no choice, without recognition of their importance and increased risk in the way of pay or prioritized protection, and, largely without even gratitude from others (and actually the opposite in some cases, as many have been met with hostility).

Most people who could work from home were in higher “value”/pay jobs. They could stay out of public, work flexible hours, etc. In many cases and regions, they had better access to vaccines and even when access was equal, circumstances were not (e.g. I was able to block off time in my calendar, while my wife was with the kids and drive to a clinic. Many didn't have that work flexibility, support at home, car or resources to get one so easily). Meanwhile, to avoid disruption for all of us to access food, gas, medicine, medical care, infrastructure, public transportation, and so on (in other words, to avoid post apocalyptical type societal breakdown), many employees whose jobs cannot be done from home, were mandated to work. Cashiers, delivery, truck drivers, seafarers, air transport workers, bus drivers, road workers, infrastructure, nurses, paramedics, factory workers, food plant workers, custodians, teachers, warehouse workers and so many more. They were largely faced with a choice between less safety than everyone else or their jobs (and being able to feed and provide for their families).

They were at more risk, in some cases, the highest risk, they struggled to get PPE and often they waited for vaccines after others. Many make minimum wage and/or lower wages, can’t afford a car, gas, insurance and thus have to commute on public transit, further increasing their risk.

To top it off, many of these jobs also faced hostility from the public. Either people are angry and hostile that services are degrading or protesters are hostile towards employees who are all just trying to do their jobs, pay their bills, feed their children.

The message here is loud and clear

Despite these jobs being literally dubbed “essential services”, the people doing them aren't treated with with comparable respect. Despite being essential, they are paid as if they are not, their health is risked as if they are not and their working conditions, flexibility and support is not prioritized as you might imagine it would be for someone essential. They are widely made to feel dispensable, replaceable and unimportant.

Cumulatively and simply..the message is, they are “less than” the rest of society.

I am sadly reminded of an old joke

Different parts of a body are arguing over who is most important. The brain argues it is because it does all the thinking and directs all the other parts. The feet said they carry the body everywhere. The eyes said they allow the body to see. The hands said they do all the work. The heart says it fuels the whole body with blood. The lungs said the same about air. And so on. Finally the bum said it was most important and everyone laughed. Then it stopped working to prove a point. The body could not dispose of waste and toxins, fell ill and slowly each of the other parts broke down.

It’s a terrible sad comparison really because it implies society thinks of the value and skill of these workers in the way the body parts thought of the bum. In turn that gives permission to treat them with less consideration than the other parts are treated, not respect their contribution and to look down on "less than".

But like that story, if they stop working, everything does. If how they are viewed, treated, paid and respected doesn’t sync up to their importance, that is exactly what will happen. And it already is. If you haven’t noticed, there have been rippling and crippling effects of the global supply chain buckling. A supply chain that is filled with these types of jobs from the source of products you consume, to getting to your country/city/area, to your store and/or into your home.

We are now seeing the backlash in action

The great resignation, the struggle for front-line employees, blue collar workers, retail workers, the recent open letter by all the key supply chain groups (ICS, IATA, IRU, ITF) to the UN that the supply chain is near collapse if the workers all along the chain continue to be overworked and undervalued .

If these workers stop working, the body, society, will not be able to function and all the high "value" people, will be useless.

The Great Awakening is real. The pandemic has only exposed an issue that has long been the case but it’s also brought it to an unavoidable impasse. We can’t continue the gap between their importance and their treatment any longer. The pandemic shined light on what can't be unseen and what clearly won't be accepted any longer.

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