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An expert’s take on essential work, overwork, and unemployment

David BlusteinCourtesy David Blustein

Boston College professor David Blustein’s most recent book, “The Importance of Work in an Age of Uncertainty: The Eroding Work Experience in America,” was released in 2019, before the pandemic.

He wrote it long before almost 40 million people began filing for unemployment as the world shut down.

Now he’s trying to figure out how his research can help.

Blustein, who studies the psychology of work, occupations that put people in danger, and the future of employment, joined me for a discussion as part of Taking Care, a Love Letters series where we hear from mental health professionals about how to cope during this difficult time.


Below is a very edited and condensed transcript of our discussion. You can watch the video for more. You can find the entire Taking Care video series at

Taking Care with Meredith Goldstein featuring David Blustein
Watch Professor David Blustein talk to Love Letters columnist Meredith Goldstein.

Meredith Goldstein: Can you tell me about your work?

David Blustein: I’ve been a professor at Boston College since 1999. I’ve been studying work, I would say, for over 35 years. I primarily started out in the career development world, and I shifted to focusing on work in a broader, more inclusive way, focusing particularly on those who don’t have a lot of choice and volition in their lives. Over the years, I’ve been focusing on things like unemployment, precarious work, and mental health and work.

MG: You wrote this book about “eroding work” before this crisis.

DB: In some ways, it was kind of foreshadowing what’s happened now. I identified a kind of erosion in the world of work that was also affecting people psychologically. And even though we had a low unemployment rate, I could have foreseen this happening.

MG: I want to talk about career and identity. Many people define themselves by what they do, and some people have lost that part of themselves.


DB: People, certainly in the last century or so, began to internalize a sense of what their occupation was. And actually, it goes even further back. If you look at the names, last names of people, British names — Baker, Miller — people often took the names of occupations in their family history. [Now], many people in the US and in other countries are taking what I call “survival jobs.” But these survival jobs often are not as internalized into people’s identity. I’m going to be doing some research on this during the summer. … We talk about survival as a core issue, which has kind of been left out of the traditional Western views of career. I think the survival and the identity issues are going to [become] intertwined.

MG: I see all of these signs in my neighborhood thanking people who do what we now know is essential work — selling groceries, delivering mail, etc. Will the world remember to maintain that kind of respect when this is over?

DB: I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking about this concept of dignity at work, and we’ve thought more about this in relation to essential workers, particularly those who are taking jobs as grocery store clerks, doing deliveries — people who have been what I call invisible in our society. … Will we continue to see [people] as essential workers? I guess I would say that I hope so. And I will work very hard to make sure that happens. My parents were essential workers. My father was a sheetmetal mechanic for Pan American. My mother worked in a department store in Queens, and I remember they told me when I was like 10 years old, and I must have said something a little bit snarky, and my mother said, “David, we don’t have glamorous jobs. What we do is important to keep the world going.” Maybe that was the comment that sent me on my path. I do think it would help if we had a president who could help the country to mourn, who could lead us in our grieving and also highlight these heroes.


MG: One of our readers asks, “What do you do if career adjustments need to be made in your 50s?”

DB: This is an opportunity, you could rethink what you want to do. For people in their 50s, often they’ve developed a lot of skills that they’re not aware of. There are tools available, they’re actually free. In Massachusetts, there’s a portal called the Massachusetts Career Information System, and there are assessments there. Another resource is the local one-stop career centers. Maybe this is the time to learn some new software or to take some online courses.

MG: A reader writes, “I am beyond overloaded. We are losing staff members and are absolutely forbidden now from hiring more people. I’m having a nervous breakdown and crying multiple times a day now, I have to problem-solve for my job, and I literally can’t do it very well anymore. I fear my work will penalize me if they find out how badly I’m doing.”


DB: I actually would recommend that [this reader] see a therapist, because there was a lot of anguish and pain in that question. You can do therapy through [telehealth]. Now back to the question. Part of the problem is there have been furloughs and layoffs, and the people who are left are saddled with a huge amount of work. I think that self-care is going to be critical. I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, taking a break during the middle of the day, taking a walk for an hour.

MG: If you had a message to managers and people who have employees right now about expectations and communication, what would it be?

DB: I think transparency is critical. Try to put yourself in the shoes of your direct reports and try to understand their experience. And if you do have to lay people off, try to provide some referrals for them.

MG: How can employed people help unemployed people right now?

DB: What I would recommend is to reach out to people. One of the best ways for people to get employment is through networking. Ask them, “What can I do to help you?” Let them know, “I’m happy to do anything."