How-to: Column and Op-Ed submissions
Crawling along Highway 101 in deep rush hour traffic to the San Francisco International Airport, I casually asked what prompted the young woman driving to join Lyft. She paused, took a deep breath and said, “Yeah, this is not what I imagined a few months ago when I graduated.”
“If you’re comfortable sharing, what were you hoping for,” I asked. Olivia, whose name I have changed for confidentiality, smiled, looked in the rear view mirror and told me her story.
She’d come to California, first in her family to go to college, lured by the opportunity that the tech industry promised. She’d landed what she thought was the perfect job at a startup. But a few months in, she noticed a range of red flags. Concerned about the situation – and also stressed about rent, her student loans and how little she felt she knew, this being her first job – she wasn’t sure what to do.
Ultimately, she left. Driving for Lyft was one of a few ways she was earning money to pay off pressing bills while figuring out what to do next.
The promise of a job, a future and stability had devolved and she was teetering on the edge. She looked at me and said, “Where do I turn now?”
Her story is not unique. Jobs offer economic opportunity and security – and are also our highest source of stress – in part because of the threat of losing that security. With little safety net outside of employment, emotional wellbeing and economic opportunity have become inextricably tied. And American workplaces are at the center of this.
Nowhere is it more acutely clear than in large swaths of California where high cost of living, competition for basic needs like housing and stark inequalities add more layers of emotional and economic burden for workers. This added strain can make people feel like they don’t have any options – compounding feelings of isolation and stress. This impacts both job opportunities and income trajectories over time, particularly for those with less social capital.
One of the growing, yet less visible inequities, is a disparity in work support. There’s frequent discussion about perks like free lunches that white-collar, well-resourced companies provide. As these companies compete for talent, that also includes more investment in workers’ well-being including more robust health insurance, wellness benefits, paid leave and mental health support, including counseling and coaching – all important.
But what if you don’t work at a well-resourced company, or are employed by a small business like the majority of Californians? Are a lower-wage worker? Or are teetering on the edge, and knocked off your course like Olivia?
Few, if any, resources exist.
This has a huge impact. Not having support to navigate work challenges can affect everything from earning potential to emotional wellbeing. Research shows that without support at critical work moments, people, particularly those less-represented, often leave jobs with no next job lined up, take pay cuts or leave industries altogether, creating a ripple effect that compounds existing inequities and cuts off promising opportunity pathways.
So what’s the answer? In Olivia’s case, it was powerfully simple: She told me she simply needed someone to talk to. To explore, was what she experienced normal? What other ways could she have addressed the issues she saw?
Over the next few minutes of our ride, we chatted through some of her biggest concerns. When we pulled up, I scrawled my email quickly on a piece of paper for her and she wrote down three things she hadn’t thought about before for her job search.
Connection combined with information can be transformative. We see that every day at Empower Work, a non-profit I founded that provides immediate, confidential support via SMS. The space to process the situation, ask questions and explore potential resources, whether it’s filing for unemployment or practicing asking your manager for a raise, is a game changer. “I felt like I’d backed away from a ledge,” one texter shared after a conversation.
This isn’t to minimize larger change that’s needed. We need to build workplaces that don’t have those ledges in the first place.
Implementing policies and programs to create more inclusive, equitable workplaces is absolutely critical. And new approaches like accessible, portable benefits better meet the needs of workers dislocated from traditional employment, as well as mitigate negative impact of adverse work experiences.
We need to be moving on all fronts to create workplaces that work for everyone.
In the meantime, we can each do our part to better support each other and ensure no one feels alone. This can even be as simple as asking someone who’s struggling, “How can I help?”