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Working to Live or Living to Work, Episode 3: The COVID Dam

Even in the early days, we all knew that COVID would result in some paradigm shifts when it comes to our relationships with work. This series examines shifts across various fields and sectors that show how people worldwide are re-evaluating existing work/life balance.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, EU countries suffered from labour shortages in several industries. As job losses piled up early on, many thought that a reopened labour market might alleviate some of the most painful aspects of the shortage. Instead, the crisis actually exacerbated the situation.

The Labour Flow

One of the primary conceits of the EU labour market is mobility. EU citizens can work where they want, when they want, and can obtain work visas quite easily. The system is designed to make it easy for both workers work and employers to hire from across the bloc. This allows for employers to fill gaps and plug shortages, all while affording workers greater opportunities than they might otherwise have in their home countries. This system functioned quite well for many years, but even the best system cannot solve all problems. There were still labour shortages in many industries. Governments and private employers alike incentivised even further movement, but as countries locked down and closed their borders due to COVID, the system that Europe relied on for so long temporarily fell apart.

COVID made simple, streamlined processes prohibitively difficult. The industries that were most affected were those that relied heavily on foreign workers. These industries differ by country, but a notable example comes from Germany, where the inward flow of workers fell by 25% and disproportionally affected the healthcare and agriculture industries. People expected a rough go of it for Britain following Brexit; they did not expect this same for Europe’s major economies. In fact, they expected the labourers leaving the UK to fill even more gaps in Europe’s other strongest economies. Instead, they got a taste of what Britain will be feeling for years to come.


Businesses pivot, but so do workers. And they pivot for the mostly same reasons: something they are currently doing is not bringing them the results they want. On the business side, results are measured in revenue and profit. On the human side, results may be income, but they also may be intangibles like happiness, motivation, and satisfaction. Workers have become increasingly sensitive to low wages and working conditions. COVID forced a period of introspection for businesses and employees alike, and many did not like what they saw in the mirror. In 2020, every European country suffered shortages of nurses, GPs, and long-term care workers. As the pandemic dragged on, workers in this sector saw increased rates of dissatisfaction with their chosen careers. If there is a true reopening, we may see further pivots. This may not be the best for certain industries, but it may be what’s best for workers in the long run.

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Working to Live or Living to Work, Episode 2: Never Going Back