In just a few short months, Covid-19 has upended work and life around the world, destroying livelihoods and exposing the deep inequities, uncertainties and dangers in everybody’s working lives. As writer Damian Barr observed on Twitter, “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on superyachts. Some have just one oar.”

By mid-April 2020, 81% of the world’s workers were living in countries with recommended or required workplace closures. As the pandemic and economic devastation unfolds, nearly every worker has been affected, but the misfortune is falling disproportionately on those employed in retail, tourism and hospitality, transportation and other service sectors, where work must be done on-site or in close contact with other people. Many of these jobs were low-paying to begin with and employ a large share of vulnerable and marginalised people, especially women, lower-skill, informal and contingent workers.

The misery in developing countries is especially acute when overlaid on existing fragilities. Sub- Saharan Africa will see its first recession in 25 years; massive job losses and economic contraction could spark a food security crisis across the continent. Meanwhile, south Asia’s economy is heading towards its worst performance in 40 years and a sudden, large-scale loss of low-paid jobs in cities may drive an exodus that will worsen rural poverty. In Latin America and the Caribbean, unemployment could rise by 10%, increasing the number of people living in poverty to 220 million (a third of the region’s population). Across the world, the pandemic could push over 500 million more people (or 8% of human population) into poverty – the first increase in global poverty since 1990. Everywhere, people working in the informal economy, in low-paying and ‘gig economy’ jobs, and those living in countries with limited resources and weak social safety nets will suffer the most.

Change for the better

Covid-19 has exposed the vast divide between the knowledge/professional/creative class of workers and everyone else. Indeed, the people who can work safely and keep their jobs during the pandemic are the ones who can work remotely from home and via the internet. Meanwhile, the front-line workers in the ‘real economy’ are exposed to risk of infection. Working parents in essential jobs struggle with childcare while schools are closed. Others are working without adequate protective gear, distancing and disinfecting protocols or paid sick leave. These front-line workers face a daily decision between going to work and risking their health, versus staying home and risking their livelihoods.

Even the most fortunate workers are not immune to misery. The shift from working in offices to working at home widens the inequity between those who have a home environment conducive to working productively and those who do not. The blurring of boundaries between work and personal lives has also created new issues while aggravating underlying problems related to stress, overwork, burnout, workplace abuse, work-life balance, childcare and more.

Long before the current pandemic, work has been physically unhealthy, mentally unwell and economically unstable for a portion of the world’s workers. Covid-19 has not only made these situations more precarious, but also brought them to the forefront of public attention. Will work change for the better for workers after Covid-19? This question is being asked all over the world, as the ills in workplaces, work lives, and working conditions become magnified and more devastating.

Protect to recover

Not only do work-related injuries, diseases and fatalities bring immense suffering to workers and their families, but they also represent massive economic losses to businesses, communities and the overall economy. Globally, the economic costs of work-related illnesses and injuries have been estimated at between 1.8–6.0% of GDP across various countries or at least $3 trillion worldwide. In the current crisis, poor health and disease among front-line workers depletes the ability to fight the pandemic. Over the long term, the health of the workforce must be protected in order for it to recover and grow.

Employment insecurity puts workers’ health and well-being at risk. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that Covid-19 will cause the loss of more than 300 million full-time jobs in the first half of 2020. Job loss figures alone cannot convey the magnitude of its impacts, given the widespread economic insecurity leading up to the crisis. Contingent, part-time, temporary, irregular, informal and unpaid work arrangements are rising around the world. Over 61% of workers globally work in the informal economy, with higher shares in developing and emerging nations, in rural areas and among younger workers. A job in the formal economy is not a guarantee of good working conditions either. According to Gallup, only 29% of working-age adults, across 143 countries, work at least 30 hours a week for an employer who provides a regular paycheck – what Gallup calls a ‘good job’. The share of ‘good jobs’ varies across regions from 42% in North America to 14% in sub-Saharan Africa, and the gender gap is wide with 36% of men versus 21% of women.

Workers in informal, temporary, contingent and gig jobs are most vulnerable to economic shocks like Covid-19. The ILO estimates that the first month of the crisis alone resulted in a 60% decline in earnings for informal workers globally. These workers lack access to healthcare services, health insurance and social protections, and have no oversight for their workplace health and safety risks. Most have no possibility of working from home, no sick leave and no replacement income in case of sickness or lockdown.

The overcrowded and poor housing conditions among the world’s 164 million migrant workers are also a major risk for disease transmission. Over their lifetimes, these workers have a limited capacity to save, invest in housing or consume goods and services, which has a long-term impact on economic recovery and growth. In a short time, Covid-19 has exposed the gaping holes in social protections for informal and contingent workers, in rich and poor countries alike. While many countries are now scrambling to provide short-term support, all societies must work on improving healthcare, economic security and social protections for its most vulnerable workers.


Workers who, in a 2019 global survey, said that they are stressed in their workplace.



Employees who are actively disengaged at work.

Gallup World Poll


Working-age adults, across 143 countries, who work at least 30 hours a week for an employer who provides a regular paycheck.

Gallup World Poll

Amplified in a crisis

Even before Covid-19, workplace stress, burnout and disengagement had been rising around the world. In May 2019, WHO expanded its definition of ‘burnout’ in the International Classification of Diseases to recognise it as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ and links it to chronic workplace stress. In a 2019 global survey, 87% of workers said they are stressed in their workplace and 12% felt their stress is unmanageable, with 64% claiming to work in an ‘always on’ environment.

According to the 2017 Gallup World Poll, 18% of employees are actively disengaged at work. Key factors driving employee disengagement and burnout around the world include economic uncertainties, management styles and poor workplace cultures. Disengaged and burned-out employees are less productive, have more on-the-job accidents, miss more workdays and quit at a higher rate than engaged employees. They are also more likely to steal from their company, negatively influence their co-workers and drive customers away.

In a crisis like Covid-19, issues of work-related stress and burnout are amplified. In the hospitality industry alone, millions are facing the immense distress of lost income, lost jobs and falling into poverty. Even the most fortunate white-collar workers are seeing their mental wellness suffer, as they face the stress of working from home for the first time, while they juggle childcare, schooling and other work-life challenges.

Women are shouldering a disproportionate share of these burdens and related stresses. Among informal economy workers, 53% of women are currently working in medium-high to high-risk sectors – compared with 44% of men. Women represent 70% of the front-line health workforce and they are also disproportionately represented in service sectors that have seen the biggest layoffs, including hospitality and tourism. The closures of schools and childcare are revealing the disproportionate burden of working women – of all social strata – in juggling the simultaneous demands of paid work and unpaid care work, as well as the extent to which all businesses rely on these key social institutions in order to operate at all. Moving beyond the acute stresses faced by all workers during the Covid-19 shutdowns, the longterm impacts of job stress and burnout are decreasing people’s coping skills, and weakening their resilience to deal with the aftermath and recovery period as well.

Reset the relationship

Covid-19 is an opportunity to reset the relationship between companies and workers. Employees are every company’s greatest assets. Employees and their families need to be healthy and secure in order to be motivated, engaged and productive at work. Indeed, Covid-19 has pushed the idea of stakeholder capitalism to the forefront. The World Economic Forum is encouraging business leaders to rebalance their priorities and reconsider their responsibilities to care for the wellness of their employees, customers, suppliers and local communities. Employers can rise to the occasion and act now; employee wellness means protecting workers’ financial security, their physical health, their mental well-being and their dignity. There are many issues that need to be addressed: creating safer and healthier working environments; preventing workplace deaths; paying living wages; providing paid sick leave; addressing workplace harassment and discrimination; reducing the culture of overwork; and more. Long after Covid- 19, people will watch and judge the character of companies and business leaders based upon their actions during, and after, the crisis – deciding what types of businesses they want to be their employers, customers, business partners or operating in their communities into the future.

Covid-19 has galvanised a movement to recognise and appreciate the essential workers who are on the front lines. But saying thanks is not enough. As the world emerges from the crisis, it needs to reconfigure its economies and societies to provide these workers with compensation and protections that reflect the true value of their contributions. Regardless of the type of work or the place of work, every worker has a basic human right to a safe and healthy working environment.

Government policies and regulations set the baseline for protecting their citizens’ health and well-being in workplaces. Despite the proliferation of government regulations on workplace and occupational safety and health, work is unhealthy and unsafe for millions of workers around the world, even more so during the current pandemic. Governments have a responsibility to monitor and enforce existing health and safety standards, while stepping up regulations where protections are lacking.

Now more than ever, it is clear that a strong social welfare system is also essential for lower-income, lower-skill and vulnerable workers. Measures such as mandating fair minimum wages, public unemployment schemes, paid sick leave and paid parental/family leave provide an essential safety net for workers at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, alleviate human suffering and are even linked with better health outcomes. They keep economies functioning in times of crisis and it is essential that these policies are extended to the large share of workers who are self-employed, work on a short-term contract or gig arrangements, or work in the informal economy.