The Mental Impact of Physical Labor

The American Psychological Association recently released a report revealing that the overwhelming majority of U.S. employees suffer from work-related stress, particularly during the unprecedented pandemic crisis. It goes without saying that no one has been exempt, yet it has come to light that blue-collar workers such as those in construction and manufacturing may have had to endure additional pressures. After all, they are on the front lines dealing with real-world issues while risking their health and safety far more than remote or deskbound workers do.


Impact of COVID-19 on Blue-Collar Workers’ Physical and Mental Health

The pandemic revealed the stark disparity between frontline teams and corporate workers for many companies. Unfortunately, most of these organizations did not address this gap adequately nor communicated effectively with both employee groups.

Many companies had the foresight to close down corporate offices in order for their employees to work remotely yet still stay safe. These workers could get the necessary equipment and supplies they needed while caring for their families without compromising job security and income if COVID-19 test results returned positive. Remote corporate employees have the benefit of paid sick days if they become ill and don’t even need to take a day off as they can work from home. In contrast, frontline workers at the same company had no choice but to come to work daily and expose themselves and their families to COVID-19 without any protection or additional pay.

Over the past few years, hundreds of blue-collar workers have shared their struggles and fears regarding the pandemic and its effect on their job security. This number continues to climb as white-collar employees are granted remote work opportunities while those in manual labor continue to be denied such an advantage. As a result, many individuals tragically experienced both layoffs and infection due to being forced into contact with others before vaccine availability.


Impact of Too Much Physical Labor on Mental Health

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was an immense difference between the psychological well-being of blue-collar and white-collar employees. Studies have revealed that those who worked manual labor are substantially more likely to receive treatment for depression than their office counterparts. Past studies have highlighted the fact that manual laborers face an increased risk of suffering from depression and anxiety due to their physically demanding jobs.

From disparities in workplace environments to the higher concentrations of individuals present in factories versus offices, blue-collar workers are continually exposed to more health risks than their white-collar counterparts. With cramped ventilation and limited personal space, these aspects allow hazardous conditions for them due to a lack of safety precautions.

Exercise is typically seen as a tool for improving mental health outcomes. But research has found that the effects of work-related physical activity may not be quite the same as recreational exercise and leisure time physical activity. Studies in the U.K. revealed that those with high levels of occupational physical effort had poorer mental and physical health and an elevated risk of mental health disorders compared to others who participated in leisure activities.

According to experts, achieving a balance between physical labor and rest is essential for mental health. Not enough activity can result in boredom or depression, while too much work is hazardous to one’s well-being. In comparison to white-collar workers, achieving this ideal balance may be tougher for blue-collar laborers who often spend their days performing strenuous 9 am – 5 pm jobs with little time off in between. Therefore it becomes increasingly important that people who find themselves in this situation prioritize self-care by engaging in intentional physical exercise that benefits both the body and mind.


Post-Pandemic Life for Blue-Collar Workers

So many frontline/blue-collar workers felt disposable during the height of the pandemic, and they still haven’t mentally recovered from that. Of course, getting back to a sense of “normal” in all aspects of our lives is good for everyone including blue-collar workers. But it will take intentional strategies and communication within organizations to rebuild trust.

A big focus should be on addressing post-traumatic stress. The psychosocial stressors placed on our blue-collar workforce as a consequence of the pandemic may linger for a long time and present not just a welfare burden but an economic one. If we teach people to develop healthier habits and lifestyles, including considering mental health treatment, we can ultimately reduce negative health outcomes associated with both chronic and infectious diseases.

Mental Health Benefits in Supporting Blue-Collar Workers in the Long Term

Experts agree that blue-collar workers must be provided with greater aid and safeguards at both the local and national levels. Sadly, these vital individuals were among those most neglected during this pandemic crisis. Consequently, they need to receive enhanced unemployment benefits, including access to mental health services if similar crises happen again in the future. They also need workplace safety standards which will guarantee secure employment settings completely free of health risks.

The tireless efforts of our frontline teams enabled most companies to remain afloat during the most difficult times of the pandemic. Their dedication is what has allowed these companies to be successful today. However, the majority of “return to work” strategies are focused on corporate workers and how they were impacted by the pandemic.

To truly make a positive difference in blue-collar/frontline employees’ lives, companies must demonstrate their appreciation for them. Companies need to ensure that these individuals who have continuously worked throughout this time know that their hard work does not go unnoticed. After all, many corporate employees still have jobs today because of these very same people.

Organizations have a phenomenal opportunity to take an in-depth look at their employees’ experiences and guarantee that blue-collar workers and white-collar employees are included equally. From benefits to rewards to the work conditions they offer, it’s time for companies of all sizes across every business sector to make this change.

It is essential for frontline workers’ opinions to be heard in crucial dialogues and for managers on the front lines to receive guidance and tools that will help them treat their personnel more fairly, which would lead to stronger loyalty from employees. To ensure blue-collar staff get a fair chance at success, leaders must ensure they have access to the same healthcare benefits, vacation time off policies, family leave programs, and other essentials offered to their white-collar counterparts.


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The Union Workforce Initiative is for educational, training, and awareness purposes only. This is not an Employee Assistance Program. We help build awareness within the workforces of employer/employee assistance professionals, substance abuse professionals, nurses, doctors, and other educational professionals.