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Tina Casey headshot

As Omicron Rises, Frontline Workers Face New Risks

By Tina Casey

Whether or not the Omicron variant turns out to be as deadly as earlier iterations of the COVID-19 virus, it should send up red flags for stakeholders in the grocery store business. Frontline retail workers are already stressed by a never-ending stream of negative customer interactions related to pandemic safety, and Omicron is a reminder that the threat of a mental health crisis looms larger with every fresh wave of infection.

A closer look at mental health among grocery workers

Almost two years into the pandemic, the physical risk of COVID-19 transmission in retail stores and other indoor spaces is well understood. Far less measured is the impact on mental health, and a new study of grocery store workers in Arizona seeks to close the gap.

Authored by a team of public health, worker health and retail marketing researchers at the University of Arizona, the study was published last September in the academic journal Public Health Reports under the title, “Essential but Ill-Prepared: How the COVID-19 Pandemic Affects the Mental Health of the Grocery Store Workforce.”

The study consists of an online survey completed by 3,344 grocery store workers in July 2020. The research team worked with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 to solicit participation from the union’s 24,000 workers in Arizona. More than 90 percent of the respondents reported regular interaction with customers.

Workplace safety and mental health

The online format of the study may not convince skeptics, but the results strongly suggest that all retail stakeholders need to review and reinforce their COVID-19 safety protocols even as scientists learn more about the Omicron variant.

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In the Arizona survey, 20 percent of the respondents “exhibited signs of severe anxiety and depression” as the pandemic stretched into its first summer. The research team also notes that “for grocery workers, we found that the levels of anxiety and depression are more than twice the national average.”

The authors conclude that “the COVID-19 pandemic has placed grocery store workers on the front lines of essential services but left them largely ill-prepared to safely navigate their interactions with coworkers and customers, which greatly increases their risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.”

They also observe that grocery workers tend to be economically disadvantaged, which amplifies the risks.

“Work environments that require frequent interactions with people outside ones household, coupled with a lack of adequate support services, render this group vulnerable to negative physical and mental health consequences,” they explain.

Retail stakeholders can clean up their acts

The authors present two steps that grocery stores and other retail businesses can take to improve employee perceptions of their safety, leading to improved mental health outcomes.

One is to ramp up their workplace COVID-19 safety rules and enforce them, rather than relying on voluntary compliance.

“Both safety trainings and administrative controls increase employees’ perceptions of their employers’ commitment to their safety, which can motivate them to follow safety protocols and reduce transmission risks in the workplace,” the research team explains.

The second step, clearly necessary with the Omicron threat looming, is to ensure that all employees have access to COVID-19 vaccines, as a means of bolstering safety assurances.

Preparing for the Omicron variant

Both of these steps are fraught with challenges.

The COVID-19 vaccine side of the solution should be simple, but it is not. Some employers did step up during the earliest months of vaccine availability in 2021, but almost a year has passed and employers still need to proactively challenge misinformation, including politically charged ideology.

That is a very tall order. Even as the population of unvaccinated adults shrinks, the demographics of the unvaccinated have come into sharp focus. Reaching out to disadvantaged communities and people of color is only part of the solution.

As of May 2021, the Kaiser Family Foundation’s KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor noted that “the unvaccinated group are younger, more likely to identify as Republicans or be Republican-leaning, and more likely to have lower levels of education and lower incomes than the vaccinated population.”

That survey occurred during the early months of vaccine availability. By late May, 62 percent of adults had been vaccinated. Younger adults had only just become eligible, which may have accounted for some of the age disparity.

In September, KFF noted that concern over the Delta variant was one of the factors motivating more unvaccinated adults to get vaccinated. Ethnic disparities in vaccination rates have also eased alongside concerted outreach efforts, but the political divide has sharpened.

As of late September, the KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor reported that 72 percent of adults had received at least one dose of a vaccine. Racial and ethnic disparities all but disappeared, but “large gaps in vaccine uptake remain by partisanship, education level, age, and health insurance status,” KFF noted.

If the Omicron variant does prove to be a lethal menace similar to that of Delta, employers should be prepared to encourage and assist more unvaccinated employees to get their shots.

Workplace safety and patriotic duty

Employers are beginning to recognize the impact of COVID-19 safety concerns on employee well-being. Many took action in the early months of the outbreak, even as former President Trump continued to downplay the impacts of the pandemic.

However, the workplace safety side of the solution is also complicated by the political divide over COVID-19 vaccination.

Even with clear protocols in place, employers and their workers must still deal with noisy, rude and all too often violent backlash from customers and clients who refuse to believe that COVID-19 is, in fact, a public health crisis.

Given the factors identified in the KFF survey, the prospects for toning down the backlash are slim. However, corporate leaders could make a difference, by exerting their financial muscle on elected officials who continue to thwart efforts to get the pandemic under control.

Public messaging could also make a difference. Vaccine refusers are singularly focused on their individual rights, regardless of the risk they pose to others — even to members of their own families. In consideration of the political divide over vaccination, corporate leaders could position their brands behind public health messaging that focuses on the common welfare as a patriotic goal. That could help diffuse and redirect the emotional underpinnings of vaccine refusal, at least to the extent they are rooted in politics.

The appeal to patriotism may not motivate hard core refusers to get their shots, but it would add some much-needed clarity to the debate over vaccine mandates. After all, the U.S. Department of Defense requires a long list of vaccines for active duty troops as well as for Reserves and National Guard, and that list that now includes COVID-19.

Given the cascade of supply chain crises linked to the pandemic, COVID-19 prevention really is a matter of national security. Any adult American shopper should be willing to rally around that flag.

Image credit via Philippe Beliveau/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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