Peter Bart: As America Reopens, Workers Quitting In Droves Amid Tension, Stress & Burnout

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This was supposed to be that upbeat, long-anticipated week when masks came off and people reconnected with their social lives. Maybe even considered a return to the office or at least a trip to the movies.

Instead, a more complicated scenario seems to be unfolding: Bars and restaurants are busier, but a sullen undertone persists. New surveys show that a substantial percentage of the work force has decided to quit their jobs rather than return to work, and that’s true in Hollywood’s executive suite as well.

“There are pervasive symptoms of burnout,” reports Christina Maslach, of the Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley. “It’s like a lightbulb has burned out but not the whole fire.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “Where pre-pandemic workers craved job security, the present wave of resignations is the highest since 2000.” The upshot is a major disruption in the way companies must do business.

I decided to do my own small survey this week by talking with several entertainment executives who, contrary to the trend, had returned to work. I asked them to list some of the changes that they would like to see in their workplace, promising confidentiality.

A sampling of responses: “There’s too much tension at work, personal and political.” ”I don’t like an HR presence in every meeting.” ”People are afraid to chat honestly with one another, especially about diversity.”

The subtext: The tensions pervasive in society about race and sex are impacting the office. “There’s an overlap between burnout and stress,” says Inger Burnet-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern.

The stay-at-home syndrome has fueled political explanations: a rejection of big-city life, a fear of crime as well as Covid, the passage of government aid subsidies. A contrary point of view, however, traces burnout to tensions relating to compensation. “It’s all about gaps,” explains one senior executive. “Even if you’re moderately successful, you inevitably measure yourself against the new billionaire class.”

A study commissioned by The New York Times found that “the gap between CEOs and everyone else has widened during the pandemic.” Its report concluded that “even in a gilded age for executive pay, 2020 was a blowout year.” Obscure CEOs like Alexander Karp of Palantir, a data mining company, earned $1.1 billion in pay last year. Meanwhile, only 13 female CEOs made the top 200 list in terms of compensation.

Obsession about the billionaire class has been heightened by last week’s report from ProPublica revealing that billionaire investors paid no federal income taxes in recent years. “Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, did not pay a penny in federal taxes,” the report found.

The reaction in the press was predictable.

“Given what this country has been through with Covid, and given how hard it is to earn a buck, this new glimpse into inequity is genuinely disgusting,” Maureen Dowd wrote in The Times. Summoning up Dickens, she added, “Paging Madame Defarge: Where did you get your knitting needles?”

A new report on banking also has underscored the question of excess. According to The Economist, banks essentially are flooded with money – billions of dollars in cash that they aren’t sure what to do with.

A company like Verizon holds $10.2 billion in cash, up 45% from a year ago, while corporate bank deposits overall have surged to $17 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

It’s reassuring to have money in the bank, to be sure, but “the financial arena has become a giant Shark Tank,” one media executive commented. “Everyone lines up, begging for money from the Sharks, who demand an ever bigger piece of the pie. No wonder the show leads Friday night in ratings.”

Inevitably, tensions over compensation spill over into the arena of diversity. Are women gaining ground as much as men? Blacks and Latinos may be making gains in job opportunity, but has their compensation followed suit?

Says one media CEO: “The pressure from the diversity chorus is fierce. I am looking for input on talent, and instead I am yelled at about quotas.”

The upshot: More people of all strata seem to be taking the easy path by opting out of the marketplace. This week was supposed to deliver freedoms, but it’s turning out to be a daunting display of burnout.

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