The workers who won in the pandemic — and those who lost

By Vic Strecher and Will Johnson

The Covid-19 pandemic and concurrent economic collapse have been remarkable for their uneven impact. The coronavirus has decimated elderly populations while largely sparing children. The U.S. GDP plunged by the sharpest rate ever, while the stock market posted record highs.

Now we have data confirming another way that we’re really not all in this together. A new survey of American adults by The Harris Poll in collaboration Kumanu, a well-being technology company, reveals who’s entering 2021 doing better or worse — financially, mentally, physically and existentially — by 13 job sectors.

There are two big surprises to us.

The first: How many working Americans say they are doing better today across the board than they were before Covid-19 erupted in the U.S. nine months ago. They include teachers and others in education, despite how fundamentally their jobs were changed by remote learning.

The second: How much worse most essential workers feel. Those in food and hospitality suffered by all four measures, as expected, but so did those in another handful of sectors including public services which takes in police and firefighters. And while they saw more purpose from their work, those in health care say both their mental and physical health worsened during the pandemic along with their financial position.

There’s one thing our poll substantiates that probably shouldn’t surprise anyone: It’s a great time to be an investment banker or a techie. And pity the poor consultants, stuck at home and pining for face time with their clients.

When it comes to finances, five groups have come out solidly ahead during the pandemic, according to our survey of American workers: education, financial services, retail, sales and marketing, and technology. In finance and tech, more than half of employees say they gained financially in 2020. Those in retail did even better, with 65% saying they had more money at year-end and only 11% reporting they were worse off as Covid-19 bonus pay and e-commerce hiring more than offset layoffs and furloughs.

Groups losing significant financial ground include consulting, real estate, and transportation. Only 2% of consultants say their finances improved, while 59% in real estate say theirs deteriorated.

Employee perception of financial changes since the COVID-19 pandemic by occupation. (The Harris Poll)
Employee perception of financial changes since the COVID-19 pandemic by occupation. (The Harris Poll)

Asked to assess their mental and physical well-being, respondents were about evenly split. Reporting better overall health were workers in construction, education, financial services, retail, sales and marketing, and tech. The biggest gains in physical health were in construction — 58% feeling better and 10% feeling worse — while the biggest improvements in mental health were in sales and marketing, with 56% reporting feeling better and 13% feeling worse. Those is tech stand out, too, with 51% ending up physically and 54% mentally.

Those saying they’re entering 2021 in sharply worse health are in health care, consulting, office support and real estate. Four in 10 in consulting and real estate say their physical health has declined, and over 70% in real estate say they’re in poorer shape mentally. In office support, just 11% say their mental health is better.

And yet, people in some of the categories brought down by the pandemic have ended up feeling more enriched by their work. Despite their other setbacks, six in 10 health care workers say their jobs give them a greater sense of purpose than they did in 2019, as their frontline roles reminded them of the reasons they choose health care careers in the first place. Psychic rewards are valuable, too. Also finding more purpose on the job are people who came out winners in other categories: education, financial services, sales and marketing, and tech.

Feeling less purpose at work, on the other, are employees in construction, consulting, food and hospitality, office support, public services, real estate, retail, and transportation. Fully a third in real estate and 21% in consulting say they’re getting less from their jobs than they did before the corona crisis.

Employee perception of changes in strength of work purpose since the COVID-19 pandemic by occupation. (The Harris Poll)
Employee perception of changes in strength of work purpose since the COVID-19 pandemic by occupation. (The Harris Poll)

The new year probably will be different for many Americans as vaccines enable people to return to work and social behaviors they’ve had to shun. We can’t say when the pandemic will end. But there’s one thing we can confidently predict about this new normal: We won’t all share its benefits equally.‘


Vic Strecher is CEO of Kumanu, a well-being technology company, and professor of public health at the University of Michigan.

Will Johnson is CEO of The Harris Poll, one of the world’s leading public opinion research firms.

About The Harris Poll:

Founded in 1963 by pollster Lou Harris, The Harris Poll is one of the world’s leading public opinion, social intelligence and strategy firms. Through continuous pulsing of society in the U.S. and internationally, Harris helps clients interpret, adapt and respond to constantly changing issues. Widely recognized for its polls and insight on voter sentiment, The Harris Poll also leverages bespoke polls to advise Fortune 500 C-suites on how to meet the evolving needs and wants of their customers and other stakeholders.

In 2017, The Harris Poll joined the Stagwell Group to create the largest independent data-driven digital market services firm in the U.S. The Harris Poll is run by Co-CEOs Will Johnson and John Gerzema, two veteran strategists with backgrounds in analytics and brand marketing from senior roles at WPP agencies BAV Consulting and Young & Rubicam.

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