The New Essentials: A Year into the Pandemic, We Aren’t ‘Returning’ to Work – We’re Redefining It

The New Essentials: A Year into the Pandemic, We Aren’t ‘Returning’ to Work – We’re Redefining It


Maggie Giddens

[email protected]

Ketchum study finds 7 in 10 U.S. employees prefer to stay in their current jobs, but many want mental health benefits, a shorter work week and greater flexibility

NEW YORK, March 16, 2021 – After a year of COVID-19 and its effects on work, a new study by global communications consultancy Ketchum shows that more than two-thirds (70%) of employed Americans say they are more likely to stay at their current jobs than they were before the pandemic. But with both frontline and non-frontline workers experiencing high levels of burnout as a result of the pandemic, the study reveals dramatic shifts in what people want from their employers.

Same Workforce, New Demands
Ketchum’s study, The New Essentials: Working Lessons from a Year in the Pandemic, found that nearly half of employed Americans now view workplace flexibility (46%) and health benefits (46%) as top priorities when it comes to their jobs. Nearly a quarter (24%) of employed Americans would like to see mental health programs added to their job benefits or expanded, including 26% of self-identified frontline workers – people who are indispensable in roles that require in-person contact to keep their organizations functioning. Additionally, 29% of employed Americans want to move to a four-day work week. The shift from nice-to-have to necessary is defining “new essentials” – a re-examination of the employee experience – that might not have been on the table before the pandemic. The challenge for employers is to determine which of these changes are permanent and how to deliver on them.

“The COVID-19 pandemic forever altered the relationship between employer and employee,” said Tamara Norman, partner and managing director of Ketchum’s Employee Communications & Engagement specialty. “Looking forward, it’s not about a ‘return to work’ – many people never stopped working, and many of us are working harder than ever. The big change is the evolving concept of workplace and how employees experience the company, no matter where they are. Employers need to ask: What are the new essential elements of an employee experience?”

The “new essentials” that workers say they now consider more important are in addition to, not a replacement for, standard compensation and benefits. Among the top 10 are familiar items like health insurance benefits, salary level and paid time off. But the list also includes the employee’s health, family, feeling safe at work, and employers that do the right thing.

Stressed, but Staying
Despite their plans to remain in their current roles, nearly half of employed Americans (47%) feel more burned out in their job now than at the beginning of the pandemic. This burnout is even higher for frontline workers (55%) and those working remotely full-time due to the pandemic (56%). Half of remote workers now struggle more with work-life balance (49%).

The ability to work remotely has become more important to 77% of employed Americans, and 60% of remote workers feel they are more effective at their jobs working from home. Two-thirds (66%) of people working from home say they’d like to keep doing so after it’s safe to go back to the workplace, and one in 10 non-frontline employees (10%) say nothing could make them feel safe going back to work in person. But virtual work brings its own share of stressors – half (49%) of employees working remotely full-time due to the pandemic say they would return to the office full-time if it meant they never had to get on another video call.

“The findings of Ketchum’s New Essentials study really echo what I’m seeing every day with many of my patients. Employed Americans are feeling more stressed now than they were before the pandemic, due to the absence of social contact, the inability to move about freely in the world, and the claustrophobia that develops from being in the same place all day long,” said psychologist Patricia Raskin, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at Teachers College, Columbia University. “Employers need to keep in mind that without the ability to leave home to work, many employed individuals are engaging in work and childcare simultaneously, 24 hours a day. Many of those who work away from home are faring no better when it comes to workplace stress. They are often concerned about mask wearing, social distancing and becoming infected or infecting others close to them.”

Elevating the Essential Worker
While frontline workers have carried a heavy burden throughout the past year, more than half (57%) of frontline essential workers now feel more, not less, appreciated at work by the public compared to the beginning of the pandemic. A majority of them (61%) also feel more appreciated by their employers, which is a higher percentage than among workers overall (52%). Frontline workers also are more likely than employed Americans overall to feel the pandemic has made them more empathetic toward colleagues.

“Employees have been changed profoundly by the pandemic, as have their expectations for what defines a fulfilling workplace. Health benefits and flexible hours now outrank more traditional markers like salary and being promoted,” said Lauren Butler, managing director of Employee Communications & Engagement. “Our data also reveals some silver linings. Employed Americans say they feel more empathetic toward colleagues and they’ve become more resilient. And working parents feel supported by their managers and colleagues.”

Vaccination Navigation in the Workplace
Many U.S. employers are providing access to the COVID-19 vaccine as well as offering incentives for employees to get vaccinated, but adoption is uneven. At the time of the survey, 19% of frontline workers said they had already been vaccinated. But despite one-third of employed Americans saying that mandatory vaccinations of all employees would make them feel safe going into work, about a quarter of all workers (26%) say the vaccine isn’t a priority for them – they want to get vaccinated at some point, but not necessarily as soon as they are eligible, or they will only get vaccinated if their employer requires or incentivizes it. And 15% of workers overall say they do not plan to be vaccinated or don’t know their plan.

“As COVID-related uncertainty eases, fueled partly by more vaccine availability and an economic rebound, people will begin to feel more comfortable switching jobs, and the competition for hiring talent and retaining current employees is likely to intensify,” said Butler. “The talent wars are coming. Companies need to embrace the ongoing change and reimagine the employee experience by creating the ‘new essentials.’ The winners will be the companies who keep current employees engaged and attract new talent away from competitors.”

To download The New Essentials: Working Lessons from a Year in the Pandemic research report and learn more about how Ketchum is helping companies with employee engagement, visit

About The New Essentials Study
The New Essentials Study is based on the results of an online survey of 1,000 nationally representative full- or part-time employed Americans aged 18 or older. The survey was conducted by Ketchum Analytics and fielded from Feb. 22 to March 1, 2021. The margin of error for the data at a 95% confidence level is +/- 3.1 percentage points.

About Ketchum
The winner of 105 Cannes Lions and PRovoke’s Global Creative Agency of the Year, Ketchum is the most creatively awarded firm in our industry. We’re equal parts human-centered and business-focused, empathetic and intelligent. As a global communications consultancy, we combine the deep industry and specialty expertise of boutique firms with global reach to find unexpected connections that lead to lasting relationships and work that matters. For more information on Ketchum, a part of Omnicom Public Relations Group, visit

About Omnicom Public Relations Group
Omnicom Public Relations Group is a global collective of three of the top global public relations agencies worldwide and specialist agencies in areas including public affairs, marketing to women, global health strategy and corporate social responsibility. It encompasses more than 6,300 public relations professionals in more than 370 offices worldwide who provide their expertise to companies, government agencies, NGOs and nonprofits across a wide range of industries. Omnicom Public Relations Group delivers for clients through a relentless focus on talent, continuous pursuit of innovation and a culture steeped in collaboration. Omnicom Public Relations Group is part of the DAS Group of Companies, a division of Omnicom Group Inc. (NYSE: OMC) that includes more than 200 companies in a wide range of marketing disciplines including advertising, public relations, healthcare, customer relationship management, events, promotional marketing, branding and research.

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