As COVID-19 cases spike, survey captures concerns about return to normalcy

Just 31% of respondents to a recent survey said they would feel comfortable returning to the workplace.

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Image: Zinkevych, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Each country and US state is facing a different phase of reopening or reclosing now that we have reached the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic. But a new survey from Qualtrics found that no matter where people are, they still have grave concerns about any effort to return to work or high-interaction activities. 

Researchers with Qualtrics surveyed 2,003 people in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia between June 16 and July 1, 2020. Respondents in the US hailed mostly from the South (35%), Northeast (29%), West (18%), and Midwest (18%). Researchers compared the results of the most recent survey to answers gleaned from another survey conducted in May

The report shows that the vast majority of people have no interest in returning to work, live events or travel and would only feel safe doing any of these activities if there were concrete healthcare measures in place to protect people from the virus. In May, just 24% of people said they would feel comfortable returning to the workplace and that number has increased to 31% in early July, with the majority 61% still reporting discomfort. 

SEE: The new normal: What work will look like post-pandemic (TechRepublic Premium)

To feel safe returning to work, 93% of respondents said they need employers to enforce social distancing, 90% want employers to limit the number of in-person meetings, and 87% want masks to be a requirement. Another 82% want temperature checks done on everyone who enters the work building.

"Leaders across the globe are faced with difficult decisions as COVID-19 surges in some areas and drops in others. Many are working to—or have already—reopened businesses and workplaces. But people are still hesitant. While most organizations look at measures like hospitalizations, new cases, and testing rates, it is equally important to understand perceptions—how people feel," Qualtrics researchers wrote in the report. 

"At the beginning of May, we ran a study of more than 2,000 Americans and asked people what needed to be true for them to feel confident returning to the workplace, dining at restaurants, and visiting other public establishments. Two months later, in July, we ran the same study to see how perceptions in the U.S. have changed."

The study breaks down the numbers by gender and race, revealing that Black Americans are 44% more likely than white Americans to feel uncomfortable returning to work right now. More than 30% of men are comfortable returning to work while just 23% of women reported the same feelings. 

In the US, almost every region outside of the Midwest had more than 90% of respondents who said mask wearing in the office is important. Midwesterners came in a bit lower at 77%. The discomfort with returning to work spans people of all ages and 44% of Americans think that the country may never return "to normal" after 48% held the same belief at the beginning of May.

Comfort levels with things like attending live concerts, religious services, sporting events are increasing compared to the results from the May study and there have been even steeper drops in "discomfort" for things like going to retail or grocery stores. 

The survey found that discomfort levels for actions like eating at a restaurant, voting, attending in-person conferences, and staying at hotels have all fallen below 50%, but people are still wary of public transportation, air travel, going to the gym or playing team sports. 

Respondents also expressed interest in continuing to work from home, with three out of every five saying they now prefer teleworking. Just 25% of employees want to go back to work and nearly 40% say their productivity has increased since working from home. 

For those who have already returned to working in offices, 33% said they were uncomfortable being back but felt financial pressure to return. 

The survey makes an interesting note of breaking it down by region, finding that higher percentages of people in the South and Midwest are eager to return to work. More than 30% of respondents in each region said they were comfortable going back to work and the South saw the biggest change in feelings from May to July. 

One other strange trend noted in the report was the difference in priority for mask wearing based on race and sex. Almost 100% of Black respondents said it is important that organizations require employees to wear masks when they return to work, while 79% of white people say the same. Around the world, more men (82%) said masks are important as people return to work compared to 74% of women. 

Returning to activities

The survey also delves into what it would take for people to return to activities like concerts, sporting events, and conferences. When ranked, survey respondents want mandatory masks for everyone there, social distancing enforced, and temperature checks done on everyone. About half of respondents said they would still feel uncomfortable with eating at restaurants. 

To return to restaurant eating, respondents said eateries will need to separate tables significantly, have all staff wearing masks, temperature checks, and only outdoor seating. 

Many of the same things apply for things like flights and public transit. Most respondents would need social distancing, mandatory masks, temperature checks, and more to feel comfortable returning to those activities, while more than 60% of respondents said they would not feel comfortable using either mode of transport any time soon. 

Respondents also made similar comments about voting, citing many of the same rules that would need to be established before they felt safe going to the polls. 

For those who have already returned to in-person employment, the survey found that the top four things making people worry were coworkers who were not taking the virus seriously, a lack of testing for employees, employees not wearing masks, and rising coronavirus infection rates across the country. For them to feel better about this, respondents cited many of the same desires as with other tasks, but also called for their employers to provide hand sanitizer and ban handshakes or hugs.

Potential relocation and mental health were other topics the study touched on as well, highlighting the mental and physical toll of the pandemic.

"43% of people have considered moving away from the city or state where they live because of changes to remote work policy, and 17% have already temporarily relocated during COVID-19. Of those who have relocated, 30% said they would move if they could make their relocation permanent; 50% said they would maybe move," the study added.

"67% of people say their stress level has increased since COVID-19, mostly because of money worries, uncertainty, job insecurity, and fear of the virus itself. Those who say they're less stressed say it's because of less pressure, more free time, and no more commute. 85% of those who are unemployed say their stress levels have increased, while only 66% of employed respondents said the same. 62% of people say their anxiety level has increased since COVID-19, for much the same reasons reported for stress."

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