Where have all the workers gone?

Many of us wonder why there are so many vacancies in so many industries. Airlines have cancelled flights. Ferries have reduced their schedules. Help wanted signs are everywhere — at restaurants, big box stores and small businesses alike.

I suppose there are many reasons for this labor shortage. But a recent New York Times editorial by Paul Krugman (“Wonking out: Is the Great Resignation a great rethink?” Nov. 5, 2021), a Nobel laureate in economics, suggests a more psychologically-based cause that has implications for us all. He observes that many adults who are dissatisfied with their jobs are reluctant to make a change. This refers to the phenomenon in behavioral economics called status quo bias. Simply put, we’re often willing to stay in a situation we perceive as negative rather than make a change to do something new.

As a psychologist, I see the status quo bias frequently in my patients. Joe, during the pandemic, worked at a small retail store. He didn’;t feel that the work he did used his skills and education. But he was reluctant to try something new. He felt stuck in this job and discouraged, but fearful of trying something new.

Krugman proposes that the pandemic, which put many employees out of work for an extended period, resulted in dissatisfied workers considering new possibilities and opportunities. These adults realized that they didn’t want to go back to their old jobs. And when they could return, they didn’t.

Our global pandemic has brought about massive change in our lives, much of which has been painful. In addition to our work, it’s affected our health, wellbeing and our relationships. But change, brought about by circumstances beyond our control, can be positive too. Working from home put more stress on families, but also reduced automobile pollution. For many workers who had long commutes, they got more sleep and had more time to spend with their families. Business travelers discovered that they could accomplish more than they thought with video visits. Health care providers and their patients realized the benefits of telemedicine. Ultimately, the pandemic will result in enduring change that goes well beyond the end of this pandemic — and may it end soon!

So, what’s the lesson here for all of us?

Don’t be afraid to initiate change. I see so many men and women who are unhappy with their job or their workplace. They stay where they are because they’re fearful of making a change. What if they don’t like their new job? What if the new company is even worse than the old one? We prefer the misery we know than the misery we don’t know.

Yes, there will be challenges and aspects of a new job or vocation that we don’t like. But we’ll have a new experience with new opportunities for growth. When we set out for new territory, we feel a sense of agency. We’re taking charge of our life, rather than being a passive victim of unhappy circumstance. We’re doing something to make our life better. This boosts our self-esteem and gives us energy. Yes, it’s scary and unfamiliar, but it also may bring us satisfaction and new prospects.

Staying in a bad or unhealthy situation for too long is bad for your mental health. It chips away at your happiness. The great pandemic of 2020 forced many adults out of jobs that they didn’t like. The status quo was upended by external circumstances.

Life is change. Embrace life, and embrace change.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library. html.

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