This article was first published in the excellent RandkandFile.ca. Republished with the kind permission of RankandFile and the author
KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – The nature of work has drastically changed for Nova Scotians during the COVID-19 pandemic. A group of researchers from Acadia University are studying work and health during COVID-19 through the experiences of grocery and retail workers, long-term care workers, and teachers in Nova Scotia.
The purpose of the study is to identify the ways in which labour has changed since the onset of the pandemic, and the consequences on the health and wellbeing of our essential workers. The study was launched in August and will close on November 6th, 2020.
Although the study is ongoing, the preliminary findings offer insight into the daily struggles of Nova Scotia’s essential workers, as well as the pandemic’s impact on their mental health and stress levels.
Retail & grocery workers
Grocery and retail workers have been praised as essential throughout the pandemic, ensuring that Nova Scotians have access to food and other necessary goods during a difficult and unprecedented time. However, these workers are also generally low-paid and lack benefits.
Participating grocery and retail workers have expressed a concern about contracting COVID-19 at work and then infecting others (including family members, co-workers and customers). Many reported being unable to maintain 2 meters of space between others on the job, which added to this stress.
Many participating grocery and retail workers reported a change in their behaviour since the onset of the pandemic, including not sharing a bed or bathroom with others, not preparing and sharing meals with others, and showering as soon as they return home from work.
Of the participating grocery and retail workers, very few were unionized. However, nearly half of the non-unionized workers wanted to join a union. While most of these workers did receive a pay premium for working during a pandemic, nearly all pay premiums have now ended.
Rebecca Casey, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at Acadia University, is concerned that grocery and retail workers feel overworked, overburdened, and stressed due to inadequate staffing levels. Participating grocery and retail workers provided detailed descriptions about the negative treatment they received from customers and the impact this has had on their mental health.
The pressure of working during COVID-19 is still ongoing for these workers, especially since the pay premiums have ended. Currently, most grocery and retail workers are not being compensated for the additional workplace stress they are enduring.
Long-term care workers
The majority of participating long-term care workers are unionized or covered by a collective agreement. Many reported that work was more challenging since the arrival of COVID-19 to Nova Scotia. Feelings of overwork have led to the deferral of vacations and personal work leaves.
Very few participating long-term care workers tested positive for COVID-19, although there were cases at work among both their colleagues and the residents they care for. Concern within this worker group is building with the possibility of a 2nd wave.
Sarah Rudrum, Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Acadia University, noted that in open-ended answers, long-term care workers emphasized the long-standing need for more resources at work. While some were proud of how well their workplace had managed during the pandemic, many were concerned about safety when working with new hires. Staff shortages, lack of protective equipment, and low pay also contributed to their stress levels.
So far, the study has found that over half the participating teachers received support from their principal or school administrators after shifting to remote teaching, which they generally found helpful. However, many of them lacked the furniture and space to work comfortably from home.
As for teaching, not all students had access to home internet, adding to teacher stress and creating educational challenges. Many teachers struggled to balance remote teaching while also caring for their own children. These obstacles contributed to a widespread fear among teachers that their students would be less prepared for the coming school term.
Fear of a 2nd wave of COVID-19 contributed to teacher stress. Many expressed a desire for improved safety measures such as increased cleaning, smaller class sizes to enable social distancing, improved ventilation in schools, and the availability of hand sanitizer. Teachers also expressed a desire for school protocols, which would outline what would happen should a teacher, staff member, or student test positive for COVID-19. Overall, however, teachers were not optimistic that these changes would occur.
Rachel Brickner, Professor in the Department of Politics at Acadia University, noted that teachers’ stress and worry was evident in their open-ended answers. Teachers, she observed, were overwhelmingly concerned about how their students were coping during the pandemic and were therefore trying to offer support in many different ways.
Additionally, she noted that teachers felt their own well-being was compromised due to lack of proper home office equipment, the expectation to be constantly available for students and their parents, as well as inadequate support to maintain a balance between work and home life.
The researchers are still looking for people who were employed in grocery, retail, or long-term care work at any point during the pandemic in Nova Scotia. They are also seeking teacher participants who were working remotely during spring 2020 in Nova Scotia.
The study will remain open until Friday November 6th, 2020.
To participate or to learn more, please see the project website for more details: Well-being and Work in NS During a Pandemic – Sociology
With a special thanks to our generous donors who make publication of the Nova Scotia Advocate possible.
Subscribe to the Nova Scotia Advocate weekly digest and never miss an article again. It’s free!