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How people have changed the way they think about work, according to their therapists

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The coronavirus pandemic changed so much about the way we work — the momentum behind remote work, shortened workweeks, corporate accountability and equitable workplaces has never been stronger.

For a lot of people, two years of living and working through the pandemic has also changed their relationship with work itself.

America's therapists have a direct window into these shifting attitudes through their patients — so we asked them to share their biggest insights into how people have changed their thinking about work over the past two years.

Avigail Lev, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco, has seen the shifts through each stage of Covid: At first, people were afraid to lose their jobs, which represented everything from their income to a sense of stability. Then, while working from home, people saw the upsides of having control over their days, not having to commute or face office politics.

When they worked harder than ever to the point of burnout, company earnings flourished while paychecks didn't. By the time the power swung in the opposite direction, people took better opportunities in the Great Resignation.

And it can't be overstated how much loss — of time, connection and most importantly, people — will play into how people will view work and their livelihoods as Covid evolves.

"People are suddenly being faced with the fragility of life," Lev says. "A boss might ask, 'Where do you see yourself in five years?' But maybe we don't even have five years guaranteed to plan for."

As the U.S. enters year three of working through the pandemic, people are channeling their internal reflections and shaping them into a new way of working and finding meaning in work.

Chipping away at work as an identity

Choosing a career and what company to work for is often a way for young people to carve out a sense of identity, says Sahaj Kohli, a DC-based therapist in training and founder of Brown Girl Therapy.

For many of her patients in their 20s and 30s, "putting all their time into work was a coping mechanism for how the pandemic was taking everything away from us," she says. But pandemic layoffs and job insecurity led people to feel they were losing that sense of identity — "Covid upended what they thought they wanted to do with their lives," Kohli says — and others grew disillusioned with placing too much value in their jobs.

It's an especially fraught relationship with Kohli's patients, many whom are children of immigrants and often see their career choice as a reflection of their parents' sacrifice. But as patients reported feelings of chronic overwork, Kohli says she worked with them to set better boundaries, including detangling some of the sense of identity they placed in their work.

Covid's devastation led a lot of people to reevaluate what they prioritize in life and how they spend their time, she adds. Between logging work hours and spending time with loved ones, people are overwhelmingly choosing their relationships with each other.

Embracing life outside of work

In Chicago, Shoaib Memon says his patients generally start therapy if they're dissatisfied in either their love life or career. Through the pandemic, he actually found many of his patients talked less about work over time. Most of his patients can work from home, so without office interactions, they no longer spent therapy sessions unpacking workplace trauma like microaggressions or harassment.

Instead, many clients began to focus on topics outside of work, like becoming new parents or taking up a new hobby.

"People are finding work to be just a part of your life, or just a thing you do, and you can have more flexibility in doing it," Memon says. "I can't say if they're more happy or less happy. But they have more of a say in what their work life and identity looks like."

Turning inward to combat burnout

Today's career landscape is still pretty uncertain. Job openings and turnover remain high, leaders are re-upping return-to-office plans and pay raises aren't keeping up with inflation.

As a result, Americans are turning inward to find meaning and control, says Yunetta Spring Smith, a licensed professional counselor in Clarksville, Tennessee. In the last year, Smith says more of her patients are working with the mindset that "things will always change, but I can't allow my mood to change with what's changing around me. I have to be centered in what I want for myself."

They're bringing that mantra to work, too. These days, Smith finds herself helping patients work through the big questions: Is this work serving me? How do I feel? Can I sustain this?

It could be the beginning of a big shift in how Americans handle work burnout, which has been on the rise for years and spiked during the pandemic.

After two exhausting years, Kohli says burned-out workers are having to break down the mentality that "if you're not tired at the end of the day, you're not working hard enough." Instead of working to the point of burnout, Kohli says her patients have seen through Covid and remote work that they can enjoy a slower pace of living.

Seeing remote work as a rebalancing of power

More people are choosing to work from home because they want to, even if their office is open and they're less concerned about Covid risks, according to Pew Research Center.

The ability to decide where you do your work gives people a stronger sense of safety and control, Smith says, especially for her patients, who are primarily Black and people of color. By getting rid of the office experience, she says, marginalized workers can avoid microaggressions, hostile work environments, having to codeswitch, being an "only" in the room or "dreading going back to environments that aren't culturally safe."

Memon adds that giving people the ability to choose how and where they work can give them a greater sense of meaning in their jobs.

Saying 'no' to bad bosses

Organizations have raised wages and improved retention efforts throughout the Great Resignation, but Lev says companies must recognize another point of friction causing employees to quit: company leadership. Americans said feeling disrespected at work was a top reason why they quit a recent job, according to Pew Research Center.

Lev says the pandemic has made people reevaluate how they want to spend their time and who they want to spend it with. And part of that has led people to question traditional workplaces that reward psychopathic traits in leaders, like seeking recognition, being self-centered and having a high sense of entitlement.

"People don't want to be engaged in these dynamics" and they're "sick and tired of trying to please these types of people," Lev says. The resistance to corporate office returns is one example of people pushing back on management decisions they don't feel reflect the desires of most people.

Others are redefining their outlook on work entirely by becoming their own boss, Smith adds. Americans filed a record number of small-business applications in 2021.

Quitting out of self-preservation

More than 47 million people quit their jobs last year, but not all of them are stories of people scoring big raises at a new company.

Smith works with a number of patients who are teachers, nurses and other front-line workers who say they feel unsupported and abandoned by their employer during the health crisis.

For these essential workers, Smith says it can be a painful decision to change careers "when you have an idea of what you want to do with your life and the pandemic changes everything about you trying to find yourself."

Those changes have left some people with fewer options. Millions of low-paid, part-time jobs have disappeared since the start of the pandemic, impacting some of the most marginalized workers including women and people of color. Further, millions of women remain on the sidelines of the workforce, unable to take paid work due to childcare responsibilities.

Demanding employer accountability

But there are some promising signs the future of work could be more accommodating moving forward. Workers have more leverage in the job market. Women employed in some of the hardest-hit sectors are regaining jobs and ambition in their careers. People are demanding their employers take better care of employees and the community amid a global health crisis, social injustice, escalating climate change and threats to democracy.

Lev says the rebound is encouraging. "For years I tried to get people to realize the relationship with their job: They need you more than you need them. [My clients] were too scared. Now they're saying, 'I'm out of here if I don't get my needs met.'"

Jobseekers are being more intentional about interviewing new employers and making their expectations known upfront. They're less satisfied by platitudes around company values and want to see exactly how businesses are addressing their concerns. "[Jobseekers] don't care about your mission statement anymore," Lev says. "They're seeing company mission statements are full of s---. They want to see evidence that you care about your people, their wellbeing and their mental health."

Workers also want more transparency and accountability in terms of employers being agents of racial and gender equity, Smith says. Workers are asking: "When I go back to work, is it going to be business as usual? Are you going to acknowledge my pronouns or have training to help people understand racial equity? What is my employer doing specifically that's going to show that I'm valuable? Is this company a system I want to support if they're not supporting me?"

As Lev puts it, "people don't want to go back to the old norm — they want a new one."

Check out:

Why it's so satisfying to watch people complain about their jobs on TikTok: 'People are sick of work'

72% of young workers say they've regretted a new job after starting

Here's what to say during an exit interview—and what to leave out

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