COVID-19 Delta Variant: 42% of Workers Are Worried about Returning to the Workplace

Due to the Delta variant of COVID-19, more workers than ever are concerned about returning to work.

As the Delta variant continues to proliferate and workers head into the Labor Day weekend, 42 percent say they are worried about returning to the workplace for fear of contracting COVID-19. This marks a substantial jump from June 2021, when only 24 percent had that concern.

“With headlines about the rise of the Delta variant, breakthrough cases among the vaccinated, and an overburdened healthcare system in much of the country, COVID-19 concerns that were subsiding just two months ago have risen,” said Rebecca Ray, PhD, Executive Vice President of Human Capital at The Conference Board, a think tank.

Conducted in August by The Conference Board, the new survey captured the thoughts of more than 2,400 U.S. workers on topics including return-to-work anxiety, factors driving them to pursue new job opportunities, opinions about remote work, the Delta variant and more.

The survey findings also reveal that more than one-third of workers may leave their jobs within the next six months. The driving factor: a desire for flexible work arrangements. Indeed, 80 percent cite work arrangements as very important or important in their decision to leave their current job. Survey respondents rank a flexible work location as the most desired aspect of a new job, prioritizing it slightly over better pay and career advancement, the two traditional drivers of job changes.

Key findings from the nationwide survey include: 

  • As the Delta variant surges, 4 in 10 workers fear COVID-19 exposure. When it comes to returning to the workplace, women are more concerned than men about COVID exposure, job security and mental health.
  • Workers, especially women and Millennials, continue to question the wisdom of returning to the workplace given the belief that productivity remained high while working remotely.
  • More than one-third of workers may leave their organizations within the next six months. The top reason workers are looking for new jobs is inflexible work arrangements. More than 80 percent cited the importance, at some level, of work arrangements such as flexible hours and work location in their decision to find a new job.
  • Most workers thinking of leaving their organizations want hybrid work arrangements. More than two-thirds (67 percent) of survey respondents who are considering leaving their organization are willing to work a hybrid work schedule (some days remotely, some days in the workplace). Not surprisingly, only 5 percent of CEOs support fully remote work arrangements, while 32 percent of workers who might leave say they would be interested in fully remote work.
  • Is going to the office full-time a thing of the past? 20 percent of surveyed workers only want to work remotely.

“The long-term effect of extended remote working arrangements has left its mark. Employees are much less willing to embrace the rigid, conventional work policies of the past about how and where work gets done,” said Ray. “Especially for women, to whom the bulk of caretaking and household responsibilities still unfortunately fall, the flexibility to choose what works best for them is critically important. We are starting to see companies with flexible work arrangements successfully attracting the top talent of their competitors who have adopted a more rigid stance. The challenge of attracting and retaining talent in a tightening labor market is only going to become more difficult.”

  • The push for remote work may come at a cost: less connectedness, blurred boundaries, career stagnation. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said their greatest concern about working remotely was lack of connection with colleagues. Other top concerns about remote work include lack of boundaries around work/life, working more hours, lack of visibility/exposure that may impede upward mobility, and increased isolation.

“A desire to work remotely doesn’t mitigate legitimate concerns about the downsides of remote work,” said Robin Erickson, PhD, Principal Researcher, Human Capital at The Conference Board. “For example, those who are more likely to want to work remotely—women, millennials, and individual contributors—are also most concerned with a lack of connection with colleagues when doing so. As organizations make long-term decisions about a future with remote work, they will need to bear this in mind and continuously monitor employee experience and well-being.”

  • Engagement levels are losing ground. Compared to pre-pandemic levels, 7 percent fewer respondents reported that their engagement level had increased compared to respondents to the same question just two months ago. In June, 37 percent of respondents said that their level of engagement had increased; in August, that number dropped to 30 percent. 

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About Sandy Smith

Sandy Smith is the Global EHSQ Content Lead for Intelex Technologies. Formerly the Content Director for EHS Today, she has been writing about occupational safety and health and environmental issues since 1990. Her work as a journalist and editor has been recognized with national and international awards. She has been interviewed about occupational safety and health for national business publications, documentaries and television programs; has served as a panelist on roundtables; and has provided the keynote address for occupational safety and health conferences.

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