In February 2020, Nadya* accepted a job that would have them relocating to Washington, D.C. once their child’s school year ended in June. She couldn’t have foreseen the pandemic that was to come just a month later but when it did, she asked her new company to prolong her move, citing COVID-19, the global racial reckoning, and a tragic personal loss as the reasons. Despite the fact that none of us were about to return to an office any time soon (including Nadya’s new team members), her company refused, and eventually forced her to move that September.
“I've been pretty pissed at them,” they tell Refinery29. “I was rushed and pushed into moving. Then after about six months, my job made the announcement that we were all going remote indefinitely and not returning to the office. And there was just no remorse for the fact that I uprooted myself and my child in a global pandemic.” And while many of us are experiencing circumstances that may be different from Nadya’s, we’ve all been feeling the same emotion towards our work situations — anger.
Of course, that’s those of us who were lucky enough to keep their jobs. In the first three-quarters of 2020, 9.6 million workers in America lost their jobs with the biggest victims being women of color. Of the people left in the working world, many were furloughed or asked to handle more responsibilities without a corresponding pay raise. This happened all while billionaires got richer — and the world around us crumbled, the economy faltered, and millions of people were dying.
We began hearing a lot about employee burnout, with experts speculating that exhaustion and overwork is at least one participating factor of The Great Resignation. But what people are shying away from discussing outright is the anger that workers are feeling over how they’ve been treated by their companies over the past two years: For being asked to work through traumatizing events, particularly people of color who had to show up and work every day after the murder of George Floyd and constant onslaught of anti-Black racism. For being asked to do more without fair pay.
We began hearing a lot about employee burnout, with experts speculating that exhaustion and overwork is at least one participating factor of The Great Resignation. But what people are shying away from discussing outright is the anger that workers are feeling.
People who have been working remotely for the past two years may feel angry about being asked to return to the office even while new COVID-19 variants are spreading, and we’ve proven that working from home doesn’t negatively affect productivity. Essential workers who have never been able to work from home may feel angry that they were never given adequate safety resources, hazard compensation, and, in many cases, baseline respect from their employers.
“There's a sense of inequity that I think is happening, where you've given more, but your employer isn't meeting you with that more,” explains Tammy Allen, PhD, organizational psychologist and professor at the University of South Florida. “You're spending more to work from home but wages aren't increasing while your [living] costs are also going up. [It’s] so important within the workplace that you feel that things are fair, that things are just, and when there is this sense of inequity, then people are going to engage in behaviors to try and restore equity. And that may mean leaving a company.”
In fact, research has shown that a key contributor to workplace strain is when employees feel as though their employers are being unjust or unfair, says Xinyu (Judy) Hu, PhD, assistant professor of industrial and organizational psychology from Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. Two other factors that cause workplace anger: when workers’ goals are interfered with, and when they’re faced with interpersonal conflicts at work. Over the past two years, many workers’ career paths have been thrown off course with little clarity; increased stress and communication issues caused by changing work conditions have made tensions run high.
All of this happened while we were still, well, expected to work. “The workload is still there,” Dr. Hu explains, “it's just that the transition into a different working arrangement actually makes the consequence of high workload even worse. With the same amount of work and then adding additional layers of the stress and uncertainty from COVID or the uncertainty from the news consumption, all of these things become a huge impact that collectively influences our emotions and our well-being.”
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ana was a telecommunications operator. Her job required her to answer phone calls being made to five hospitals in her state, including two major trauma hospitals. The pandemic made her already overwhelming job unbearable. In addition to the increase in call volume, she was also fielding questions about COVID-19 that she simply didn’t have the answers to — no one did. “It was getting very stressful because we were super understaffed,” she tells Refinery29. “I was the only person that spoke Spanish and at times it was just way too chaotic.”
Ana’s employers never hired adequate support staff; nor did they increase Ana’s pay to reflect the additional work she was doing. And while the managers worked safely from home, they continued to require phone operators like Ana to show up and work in person at the hospital every day — even if it was a direct risk to their health. “I have cancer, but I'm in stage zero,” she says. “Maybe a week or so into the pandemic I told my boss, ‘Hey, I have cancer, and this is why I'm scared.’ Just telling her that I have cancer was a lot for me because I didn't want anyone to know about that. And then when she replied back by saying, ‘We really can't do anything,’ it felt like she brushed it off,” Ana says.
Kimberley* was hired as an intern in fall 2019. When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., she asked her bosses — who had already been talking about bringing her on as a full-time employee — to promote her to give her access to the company’s health insurance, a benefit not usually afforded to interns at this company. “I have really bad asthma and that’s something that can be very costly very quickly just for just a cold, so obviously the pandemic for me was terrifying,” she says. But her bosses said there was nothing they could do. “It’s just insane that a company does not see you as a human being,” Kimberley says.
Her company didn’t begin to have more serious conversations about hiring her on as a full-time employee until June 2020, after the news around the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor shone a harsh spotlight on the mistreatment of Black Americans. “It wasn’t like, ‘She’s a human, she needs health insurance, we’re in a pandemic,’ it was, ‘Oh, she’s a Black employee, it looks really bad that her white boss and her white coworkers have benefits and she doesn’t,’” Kimberley says. “I specifically remember multiple conversations where it was like, it’s more of a PR move than actually giving me what I’ve deserved and have deserved for months.”
Finally, in December 2021, Kimberley was granted full-time status with benefits. “It felt like no matter how much I produced or how many ideas I came up with, it was never enough,” she says. “It’s hard to want to continue to work for a company that does not see you.”
It’s hard to want to continue to work for a company that does not see you.
Nadya, meanwhile, is no longer required to go into their new office. Their company made being remote a permanent option for workers in late 2021, more than a year after Nadya moved to D.C. and started spending $1,800 more a month on rent than at their previous home. “Not only was the move expensive, but living in D.C. during COVID [is] very expensive,” she says. “It's not like I had a Wal-Mart around the corner like I did in the south. I had to have things delivered… everything got more expensive. And the pay definitely didn't even cover the cost of living, let alone the cost of living in COVID.”
“I uprooted my life to relocate for this job and moved my daughter to a state where I had no support,” she says. “I could’ve stayed home and saved a lot of money.”
Ultimately, Nadya, Ana, and Kimberley all have something in common: a feeling of powerlessness. Like Kimberley, Ana felt scared to leave her job during the pandemic, or to push back too much and risk getting fired, because of her health insurance benefits. “I was like, if I do get COVID, this is one of the best insurance plans that they have,” she says. “I was terrified to lose that.”
Nadya, too, “didn't feel the autonomy to push back,” against their forced move. Since then, they haven’t been able to deal with or even process the anger they’ve experienced at work. “I've been a single, Black, queer mother for over half of my life,” they say. “It's unfortunate that capitalism and white supremacy has gotten me used to [this]. If I'm going to work in this capitalistic ass world, I'm going to have to suck it up sometimes — which is what I've been doing — which is unfortunate and goes against everything that I'm trying to dismantle. But it's my truth right now. I just do the job and pay the bills I can pay.”
All three ended up looking for new jobs. While Nadya says that a raise would go a long way in making them feel less anger toward their employer, Kimberley doesn’t know that anything could make up for the stress her company caused her over the past two years. “I’ve now taken off the rose-colored glasses and I see this company for what it is,” she says.
Ana, meanwhile, took three months of Family and Medical Leave in April, and during that time found a new remote position. “I feel stress-free, and I kind of felt guilty because I had left my old coworkers over there,” Ana says. “I feel like I want to go and save them from that place.”
These are just three experiences among many. Thousands of workers have quit their jobs in the past year, due at least in part to inequalities and mistreatment in the workplace, causing a current shortage in labor. It’s pretty clear: The system we’ve been working under is no longer working.
While anger isn’t always seen as a healthy emotion, it does have the power to push people to assert themselves and create meaningful change, says Dr. Allen. Anger can inspire people to fight against injustice in the workplace (and outside of it).
We’re seeing it happen. Workers at every level are speaking out against unfair work conditions: Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations documented 370 labor strikes across the country from January 2021 to January 2022. New York Magazine’s union won monthly work-from-home stipends for remote workers, while employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo, NY won their union election on December 9, creating the coffee giant’s first-ever unionized corporate store. Employees working at the outdoor retailer, REI, in Manhattan filed for their very first union election in January 2022. None of these labor fights could have been pursued — or won — without the use of workers’ anger.
I don't think there's any way to put the genie back in the bottle. There is going to be a revolution, so to speak.
Tammy Allen, PhD, Organizational Psychologist
Unions work by allowing workers to create a dialogue with management and advocate for better work conditions. But, of course, the productivity of those conversations hinges on whether or not the employer is actually listening and being responsive. So, what can employers do? “They have to start by trying to understand the employee's point of view and work with [them] to find solutions, and determine if there is a larger underlying problem,” Dr. Allen says. “And in some cases, we probably need to try and hit the reset button, reassess the situation overall, and again, work toward a solution that’s reasonable for both that employee and the company.”
Right now, employees are actually at an advantage. Dr. Allen says that because of the current labor shortage, workers may be in a better position to try and negotiate for change. “Employers are not really in a good position to lose good employees right now,” she says. Of course, as the Great Resignation showed us, many people who are able to may simply opt to move to a new job rather than try to push for change.
Although it’s possible to look at this moment through a positive framework, the fact is that unionized workplaces are still the minority. For every labor win, there are many, many other incidents of exploited workers who don’t have the means to fight back. The fact that we even got to a place where workers have to try to convince their bosses that they’re deserving of fair pay, safety in the workplace, and basic respect is a clear sign that the system is crumbling around us. But maybe that’s a good thing.
The pandemic has helped to uncover what we’ve always known to be true — that people don’t want to live to work, but work to live. “I don't think there's any way to put the genie back in the bottle. There is going to be a revolution, so to speak,” Dr. Allen says. “Some employers will be at the front end of that revolution, others will lag behind. And those who lag behind will be left behind.”
*Names have been changed.