Omicron has had more than a mild impact on workforces

Marisela Maddox, a parent of students Atlas and Hero Smookler, works as a substitute teacher at the Austin Jewish Academy as the spread of the Omicron variant leads to teacher shortages amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in Austin, Texas, U.S., January 20, 2022.  REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

Parents have filled in for teachers during the Omicron wave in Austin, Texas. Image: REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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  • The highly-infectious COVID-19 variant Omicron may be cresting, but its impact on the labour force has been severe.
  • That’s triggered emergency measures and rule changes.
  • It’s generally given vaccinated people mild symptoms, but experts say the next variant may not.

My local pharmacy in Switzerland recently sent me an email that nicely distilled the Omicron era. Your booster is cancelled, it read, because an employee “affected by COVID-19” has left us short-staffed.

So much for one option to protect myself and remain fully able to work – because someone tasked with helping me do that couldn’t, and isn’t.

Omicron, the highly-transmittable variant that quickly became a dominant strain of the coronavirus as it sent case counts soaring, can result in relatively mild symptoms. But its impact on the labour pool has been anything but.

In many parts of the world, it’s been a struggle to keep enough people on hand to administer booster shots, drive buses, or teach third-graders.

The number of respondents in a recent US Census Bureau survey not working either because of coronavirus symptoms or caring for someone with symptoms was nearly triple what it had been in the period roughly a month earlier

The number of respondents in a recent US Census Bureau survey not working either because of coronavirus symptoms or caring for someone with symptoms was nearly triple what it had been in the period roughly a month earlier – and 32% higher than in the period a year earlier, when the country was starting to familiarize itself with the concept of variants.

Image: World Economic Forum

Omicron has left a similar mark elsewhere. Canadians have faced mail delays due to depleted post office staff, France has had to let infected but much-needed healthcare workers continue treating patients, and the governor of Tokyo asked businesses to draw up continuity plans for losing at least one in ten workers.

Is the Omicron wave cresting?

In some places, Omicron may have peaked. But workforces are still absorbing its wallop.

Stories about heroic parents (or even National Guard troops) taking over classroom instruction when teachers call in sick have somehow started to seem routine. At one point the top executive in San Francisco’s school district spoke with a reporter about teacher shortages as he filled in for a 6th-grade science class full of students Googling him and his salary.

omicron and other COVID-19 variants
Image: World Economic Forum

Nurses have also been in short supply. One Swiss canton summoned any locals who have a nursing degree but aren’t currently working to register for service immediately.

In Switzerland and elsewhere, another reaction to Omicron-induced workforce disruption has been to shorten the time people must sit idle in quarantine after a positive COVID-19 test.

That’s been criticized as reckless.

Omicron may result in mild cases for the vaccinated, but experts urge people to take it seriously. They’ve also issued warnings about its inevitable successor. “The big question is whether or not future variants will be more or less severe,” a WHO official said earlier this week.

That could mean even more dramatic worker shortages. Still, it may not get the attention of the many people who seem to be dismissive of the dangers posed by the virus. The same US Census Bureau survey results showing more people not working due to COVID-19 symptoms also indicated that steadily fewer have been opting out because they’re concerned about either getting or spreading it.

More reading on Omicron’s impact

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Many companies in the UK are having trouble recruiting new workers and retaining staff, according to this analysis; Brexit has only aggravated these pandemic-related problems. (LSE Business Review)
  • One segment of the global workforce undermined by Omicron, according to this piece: bureaucrats tasked with pushing Cambodia’s agenda as this year’s chair of ASEAN. (The Diplomat)
  • How did Omicron spread so fast? According to this report a high viral load isn’t the answer, but the variant’s unsettling ability to evade obstacles probably is. (Nature)
  • “It feels, actually, worse than spring of 2020.” According to this piece, an alarming number of remaining employees at short-staffed US hospitals have been calling in sick with COVID-19. (STAT)
  • Omicron made it all too clear that variants can quickly have a global impact, according to this piece, which advocates for cash incentives for vaccination as a way of impeding their emergence. (The Conversation)
  • A “lighthearted protest” against Dutch restrictions implemented amid an Omicron surge turned the Van Gogh Museum into a nail salon and Amsterdam’s Royal Concert Hall into a barbershop, according to this report. (Smithsonian Magazine)
  • What proportion of symptomatic people don’t bother taking a COVID-19 test before doing things like going to work? According to this analysis, as of late 2020 in the UK the answer may have been about one in four. (The Conversation)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to COVID-19, the Workforce and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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