CHICAGO — Mental health and safety concerns dominate people’s minds, even as the pandemic eases, according to a new survey conducted by 23 newsrooms in the Chicago region.
In April, 438 people responded to a survey conducted by the 23 member newsrooms of the Solving for Chicago collaborative that asked about the long-term effects from the pandemic people are facing, particularly at work, and how they’re overcoming those challenges.
Of the 438 respondents, a quarter reported changing jobs in the prior year, with one-in-10 saying they got a new job in search of higher wages.
“I lobbied for a raise within my first three months in a new position and got it,” said Shelby Forsyth of Chicago.
Forsyth said she’s used the increased earnings to lower her rates in her side business to accommodate families still experiencing financial hardship and has put some money aside and invested in her own mental health.
In March alone of this year, 4.5 million Americans quit their job, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a rate that’s held steady for much of this year. National statistics showed that rates of quitting have grown most dramatically among educators between March 2021 and March 2022, with many teachers in the survey also saying they had quit their job in the last year.
“I retired after 27 years working in public education,” said Judy Yacker. “This retirement was planned pre-pandemic, but my last two years working through COVID were the hardest and worst of my entire career. Such a sad way to end.”
Teachers were among those classified “essential workers” during the pandemic and faced outsized risks of contracting COVID-19 because they were required to do their work in-person.
The experience as an essential worker sharply divided survey respondents and influenced what they reported wanting from work over the past year as safety restrictions lifted. Those who were essential were more likely to have changed jobs in the last year, 30% compared to 22%. The reasons essential workers quit their jobs diverged sharply from other workers. While many left the workforce entirely, those who stayed were more than three times as likely to say they changed jobs seeking improved safety conditions.
“I was an [intensive care unit] nurse. The burnout and emotional distress has led to my changing jobs after almost 20 years,” said Kimberly Huss. “It was directly related to COVID, lack of safety supplies and the increasing disrespect and verbal abuse of nurses in the last two years.”
Essential workers were also much more likely to express concerns about how their work affected their children, with greater concerns about quality time together, their children’s mental health and school achievement compared to other workers.
For all workers, the pandemic forced new ways of coping as supply chains got snarled and prices for goods such as used cars or bicycles were thrown off balance. When asked about how they were overcoming the challenges of the pandemic, respondents overwhelmingly chose to share their strategies for managing mental health concerns.
“It's been tough, but the best solution I've found is to put work second in my life,” said Eric Munn, who lives on Chicago’s Northwest side. “I prioritized family over work after attempting to do both early on in the pandemic and seeing how impossible that was.”
A renewed sense of the value of friends and family, exercise and self-care were a common theme, regardless of the respondent’s personal background. Respondents who reported a higher household income, were more likely to mention seeking professional help from a therapist and income was a clear marker in how respondents were tackling their mental health concerns.
“Every single person in our household has a therapist (or a ‘feelings doctor,’ as my kids would say),” said one respondent who reported household income of more than $150,000. “We also just cut way back on everything that wasn't absolutely essential so much less got done cleaning or cooking-wise, we lightened up on homework, extracurriculars, etc., and I don't get back on my laptop after the kids go to bed anymore because otherwise I'm too exhausted to tend to my family the next day.”
Respondents who reported lower incomes shared more anecdotes about still struggling with the challenges of the pandemic.
“Keep getting out of bed, keep moving forward. Wash your hands. Hope tomorrow will be better,” said Bran, who lives in the Southwest suburbs about his own strategies.
The survey was conducted online from April 18 to May 2 with the 23 newsrooms’ existing audiences and trended toward higher income levels than the general population, with responses also skewing heavily toward white women compared to other groups.
The survey is part of an effort by the newsrooms organized under the Solving for Chicago collaboration to better understand and report on the ongoing effects of the pandemic on the lives of people in the Chicago region, particularly how it has exacerbated existing inequities and how communities are finding new solutions to address them.
The survey remains open for those who would like to share their own experiences with the collaborative and can be found at https://airtable.com/shr5T0ZF2fjtARr5I.
The participating newsrooms include: WBEZ, the Chicago Reader, Inside Publications, the Better Government Association, the Chicago Reporter, City Bureau, Illinois Latino News, La Raza, Loop North News, Chicago Music Guide, WTTW, Injustice Watch, Windy City Times, Borderless Magazine, Block Club Chicago, South Side Weekly, Austin Weekly News, Chicago Defender, Hyde Park Herald, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark and Shaw Media
Sam Cholke is the project director for the Solving for Chicago collaborative and lead the survey efforts.
This story is a part of the Solving for Chicago collaborative effort by newsrooms to cover the workers deemed “essential” during COVID-19 and how the pandemic is reshaping work and employment.
It is a project of the Local Media Foundation with support from the Google News Initiative and the Solutions Journalism Network. The 19 partners span print, digital and broadcasting and include WBEZ, WTTW, the Chicago Reader, the Chicago Defender, La Raza, Shaw Media, Block Club Chicago, Borderless Magazine, the South Side Weekly, Injustice Watch, Austin Weekly News, Wednesday Journal, Forest Park Review, Riverside Brookfield Landmark, Windy City Times, the Hyde Park Herald, Inside Publications, Loop North News and Chicago Music Guide.