I have been following the news with interest as our government declares a succession of job categories as “essential to the economy.“ This trend began with the usual sectors  like energy, infrastructure, IT and communications, but has rapidly expanded to individual job categories.  As we confronted the numerous crises created by the pandemic, we realized we needed more and more individuals to come forward to help the economy survive.

Hospital and health workers became essential, then workers in grocery stores, post office workers, employees in meat packing plants, service delivery workers, and more recently teachers and childcare workers. As the list continues to grow, it helps us understand how interwoven our world is. To support “getting back to work” we realized open schools and childcare services were vital, so adults could get back to their workplaces. We needed the internet and the people who worked in those businesses to keep us working from home. We needed people at the grocery stores, in the food supply chain, and farmers to keep us fed while we sheltered in place.

It’s kind of a “phenomenon of essential workers.” The lens I see this “phenomenon” through is that it isn’t just business that needs to be working to support the economy. There are millions of occupations that are essential to support those businesses – and their employees.

As I wrote last week, too often we see our world in parts without seeing how they are connected. And there are some problems inherent in only seeing that one view. A parts perspective sees business as the only thing that supports our economy. For example, organizations are the entities  “doing” the work and making a profit.

But a parts perspectives provides only a small portion of the whole story. When we look at the economy from a systemic perspective, we realize that we have been depending on many people and many jobs outside of the boundaries of organizations to support the way the business is operating. We don’t count the contributions these individuals and job categories provide to the economy. And unfortunately, we  often don’t pay them for the value they bring to the health of the larger economy.

What would it take to distribute costs and profits across our economy?

The pandemic has demonstrated how many workers  on lower pay scales are essential for the health and wellbeing of our lives and our businesses.  Despite this, we define a company’s profits as solely for the benefit of its shareholders (or owners if it’s private.) This simple, unquestioned definition makes businesses see their profits as something they alone generate. They discount all the other individuals and professions that are necessary (essential) for their employees to be able to work in the first place. That essential support is invisible to a business that sees hard boundaries between the organization and the larger society.

This is the problem when we don’t see interdependence. We make decisions based on what the part needs at the expense of the whole. When we see interdependence we recognize, appreciate, and support all the contributions that people outside our businesses are making to our bottom line.

The pandemic has given us the opportunity to see how we are all connected. Our job going forward is to not forget all the essential workers that help our economy move forward, and with whom our own successes are interdependent.