Afraid to Be Hired

A new survey shows 4 million people aren’t looking for work because they fear catching COVID. Why the trauma of last summer still looms large.




He couldn’t get the images out of his head: patients in hospitals, sick from COVID-19. And then there were the statistics. Latinos, he knew, were hospitalized and died from COVID at more than twice the rate of Whites. Even being vaccinated didn’t help ease his mind—fear of the pandemic still paralyzed him.

With nearly a quarter of Americans fully vaccinated and restrictions being loosened by the day, the United States appears to be hurtling toward normalcy, with summer vacations, outdoor concerts in the park, and perhaps even taking in a baseball game becoming a very real possibility for many. But for a small but not insignificant number of people, the trauma of last summer still looms large, and they are scared to death of it repeating. To be sure, last month, a US Census survey found that fear of being exposed to COVID-19 led 4.2 million to abstain from work voluntarily though they are fully employable.

David Vied, global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Medical Devices and Diagnostics practice, says for these people, the fear goes beyond typical anxiety or nervousness. “It’s a little bit more like PTSD,” says Vied, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder. He says so fresh are the experiences of the pandemic for this group that thinking about it brings about terrifying thoughts—so much so, in fact, that they are willing to sacrifice their financial health for peace of mind. Many of them aren’t collecting unemployment and are making do with credit cards and stimulus payments.

It isn’t just their financial health that could be affected, however. Voluntarily abstaining from work creates pressure on the labor market, making it harder for organizations to hire staff to meet demand, resulting in lost productivity and increased costs. Moreover, when combined with the roughly 15% of people who say they won’t get vaccinated, it creates a vicious cycle that could keep unemployment at its current 6%  rate for the foreseeable future.

All of which begs the question: What can leaders do to make this group feel safe enough to return to work? Organizations have already transitioned most roles to permanent or semi-remote status, for instance. For those roles that need to be in the office, they’ve incentivized people to get vaccinated, increased workers compensation insurance, closed conference rooms and made one-way hallways to account for social distancing guidelines, mandated mask-wearing, staggered schedules, and even adopted contact-tracing devices for employees to wear.

In fact, it may not be a question of safety at all, says Brian Bloom, vice president of global benefits at Korn Ferry and cochairman of the firm’s COVID-19 task force. Ultimately it may be more a question of trust. “Maybe what’s keeping these people on the sidelines is that there is a fundamental trust issue between them and their employer,” Bloom says. Indeed, the vast majority of people, more than 70%, say they aren’t afraid to return to the office and were likely to do so in the future.

The flip side of that, however, is that many who are fully vaccinated have still not meaningfully changed their behavior. They don’t intend to go to restaurants this summer. They don’t intend to get on a plane. And they don’t intend to go to an office. Or, as Vied says, “it’s going to be a long time before these people can unstick the risk aversion.”