Dealing with ‘Virus Fear’ and Hiring Difficulties

Michelle Hopkins

Employers across many industries are hard-pressed to fill a growing, record number of job openings. Unemployed adults are hard-pressed, too. They struggle with fears of being personally infected or spreading the SARS-CoV-2 virus or a COVID-19 variant. Meanwhile, they dig deeper to sustain themselves financially, emptying retirement accounts and pushing credit cards to their limits. Short of the virus disappearing – which scientists believe is unlikely, although one day the level of threat may diminish1 – a useful course of action may be to ease “virus fear” and enhance feelings of workplace health safety. Consulting with an occupational health provider offers options to help employers move in that direction, as we’ll see later in this article.

Industries clamoring for skilled employees

Meeting the need for skilled employees has been a challenge for industries for a while now. For instance, in construction, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects the need for both construction managers and construction laborers/helpers will grow five to eight percent faster than the national average for all occupations through 2029.2 Associated Builders and Contractors announced in March that an additional 430,000 craft professionals are needed in construction in 2021 alone.3

In manufacturing, more than two million jobs may go unfilled by 2030, according to a Deloitte-Manufacturing Institute report that calculates it is 36 percent harder now to find the right talent than it was in 2018.4 There are more open jobs in manufacturing now than at any time during the 1990s, says another report.5

Transportation and warehousing each face projected employee shortages in six-digit numbers, and the forecast has only worsened since the pandemic began. In addition, warehousing is struggling to appeal to millennial and Gen Z employees, who work for a year or two in the industry and then leave.6,7,8

With their labor shortages projected to get worse, retail and food service establishments are trying to cope using novel approaches, such as bonuses for employees who stay through the holidays, self-checkout at shoe stores to fill in for cashier vacancies, free breakfasts, and a spruced-up minimum wage-and-benefits package.9

Employers are desperate to overcome the challenge expressed by more than three-fourths of respondents in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce America Works Report in June 2021; they say it is “difficult” or “very difficult” to hire the employees they need right now.10

Their frustrations are borne out in the monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary (JOLTS) reports issued by BLS. In March through May 2021, job openings hit record levels, reaching more than nine million each month and then rising again to 10.1 million job openings in June. Meanwhile, June hiring improved slightly from the previous month but overall continued to lag. Normalizing job openings and hiring levels could be a formidable task in manufacturing, government, professional business services, transportation, warehousing, health care, and construction. Monthly hires per job opening are averaging more than 10 percent and as much as nearly 25 percent below the pre-pandemic average, depending on the industry.11-14

Thirty-one states reported more job postings per unemployed person in June than in April, with Nebraska, North Dakota, and Alabama leading the way, based on an analysis of data provided to The Business Journals by ZipRecruiter, Inc.15

Mighty struggles of the potential labor pool

Examining data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s ongoing Household Pulse Survey (with biweekly data collection) reveals some of the ways the pandemic is burdening Americans, especially those not currently employed. Trends are apparent, even over a brief period, such as March 17 to August 2, 2021.16,17,18 One finding supported by the data is that concern about contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus grew almost 35 percent from March to late July-August. This “virus fear” was the second most frequent reason given for not working. The survey included households in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the top metropolitan areas. In March, 4.2 million respondents cited fears of getting or spreading the virus as a reason for not working. That number fell to 2.8 million in late June, only to climb again to 5.6 million in late July-August.

The reason most frequently given in late July-August for not working was their employer had gone out of business due to the pandemic – with seven million people citing this reason, up from1.8 million in March.16,17,18 While any loss of a job is a stress, seeing one’s employer go out of business and possibly needing to retool for another career presents unique difficulties when the services of educational and training institutions, job counselors, and libraries may be limited or unavailable.

On a positive note, the emotional and physical aspects of caregiving (for others/self with COVID or for children not in school or daycare) lightened. In late July-August, 4.5 million respondents said they were not working due to caregiving responsibilities, which was down from 8.9 million in March.16,17,18

Where the money is coming from for household needs

In late July-August, 60 million respondents reported having a regular income similar to pre-pandemic life. That was 12 percent better than in March, when 53.6 million said they had regular income. While that’s encouraging news, the Pulse Survey also shows that people are digging deeper into personal sources for funds – credit cards and loans; savings, selling assets, or making withdrawals from retirement funds; or borrowing from friends or family – to make ends meet. In late July-August, about three million more people reported using credit cards or loans for living expenses, while one million more turned to savings, assets, or retirement account withdrawals, and another one million borrowed from family or friends.16,17,18

In March, 54.6 million respondents reported some type of government assistance as a source of spending money – a number that dropped to 37 million in June but rose again to 53.3 million in late July-August. Stimulus payments and unemployment insurance were about the same in late July-August as in late June; the more recent period saw new sources of aid in a child tax credit, school meal debit cards, and government rental assistance. Respondents who reported receiving unemployment insurance fell from 11 million in March to 8.5 million in June and back up to 9.6 million in late July-August. Stimulus dollars were reported by around 17 million in June and late July-August, compared to 31 million in March.16,17,18

What ‘virus fear’ and financial stress can lead to

The pandemic has been a widespread “mass trauma,” similar in ways to the December 2007-June 2009 recession, but it had a extra painful twist: it was isolating by instilling fear of one another over potential virus transmission, says Norma Yacoub, PsyD, QME, a southern California clinical psychologist affiliated with Concentra®. The pandemic has increased substance use, which can lead to other stressors and behavioral issues, she says.

“Because alcohol is a depressant, it slows the body down and changes the chemical makeup in the brain as well as how it responds to situations. This has many effects, altering mood, energy levels, sleeping patterns, concentration, memory and more. Alcohol also reduces inhibitions and impacts decision making. It increases risky behavior, aggression, self-harm, and suicide in people who may already be going through a tough time,” says Dr. Yacoub.19

Getting help from an occupational health expert

If you think you’re too busy to take time for a consultation with an occupational health expert, you may be missing out on an important ally. Occupational health experts have an important distinction among all health care providers: It’s their job to understand your industry, essential job functions, safety-sensitive job requirements, and the impact COVID-related factors may have on workplace performance.

Here are just a few important ways an occupational health expert like Concentra can assist you in easing “virus fear” and help foster improvements in job recruitment:

  • On-site programs are available in many size, service, and staffing configurations. They convey that health and well-being are a high priority. On-site programs also can give employees easy access on the job to knowledgeable clinicians who can answer their questions about COVID-19.
  • On-site clinicians can provide chronic health management and recommendations for changes in musculoskeletal health, which have become more serious needs in the workplace because of sedentary behavior, weight gain, blood pressure changes, and more that many adults have experienced since March 2020.
  • Occupational health guidance on substance abuse measures, including alcohol and drug testing programs to address pandemic-heightened needs.
  • On-site COVID-19 vaccinations and informational sessions to educate employees about vaccine safety and necessity for preventing spread and protecting self and others. Dr. Jeffrey Wainstein, Concentra vice president of medical operations, addressed this option in an article for Construction Executive on August 9.

Unemployed adults need to come back to the workplace, and you need them there. Ease their fears and enhance assurances of health and safety. Contact a Concentra occupational health expert today.


  1. Will the coronavirus ever go away?” Associated Press. March 11, 2021.
  2. Occupational Outlook Handbook, Construction Managers. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Department of Labor. Modified June 2, 2021.
  3. ABC: The Construction Industry Needs to Hire an Additional 430,000 Craft Professionals in 2021. News release. Associated Builders and Contractors. March 23, 2021.
  4. U.S. Manufacturing Skills Gap Could Leave As Many As 2.1 Million Jobs Unfilled By 2030. News release. Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute. May 4, 2021.
  5. Where a Labor Shortage Is Most Acute: Manufacturing, Retail, and Transportation.” Barron’s. June 9, 2021.
  6. Research Could Provide Window Into Driver Shortage.” Transport Topics. July 20, 2021.
  7. Where a Labor Shortage Is Most Acute: Manufacturing, Retail, and Transportation.” Barron’s. June 9, 2021.
  8. Attracting a New Generation of Warehouse Workers.” GlobalTrade. June 20, 2022.
  9. Another Crisis in Retail: Labor Shortage Will Get Worse.” Forbes. July 7, 2021.
  10. The America Works Report: Quantifying the Nation’s Workforce Crisis. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. June 2021.
  11. The America Works Report: Quantifying the Nation’s Workforce Crisis. U.S. Chamber of Commerce. June 2021.
  12. United States Job Openings. Trading Economics.
  13. Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary for May. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. July 7, 2021.
  14. Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary for June, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. August 9, 2021.
  15. Hiring gaps widened in the summer. These are the top states for job seekers.” Triangle Business Journal. August 11, 2021.
  16. Household Pulse Survey, March 17-March 29. U.S. Census Bureau. Technical document providing survey methodology, validation, and background, Week 27..
  17. Household Pulse Survey, June 23 to July 5. U.S. Census Bureau. Technical document providing survey methodology, validation, and background, Week 33..
  18. Household Pulse Survey, July 21 to August 2. U.S. Census Bureau. Technical document providing survey methodology, validation, and background, Week 34..
  19. Concentra-affiliated Clinical Psychologist Explains Employee Mental Health Fragility in Months Ahead.” July 13, 2021.