Susan L. Farrell, Author

Risk/Reward Analysis

When we are trying to make a decision, it can be helpful to write lists. Pros/cons and advantages/disadvantages are common. I prefer listing risks and rewards and then analyzing them to see how high or low both the risks and the rewards are and if there is anything I can do to decrease the risks and/or increase the rewards. Although this is always useful, I find it is especially beneficial in the age of COVID-19.

Remember that risks and rewards are relative. What are low to some could be moderate or high to others. What is important is how you rank risks and rewards for you.

I’m going to use the process I used in determining whether or not to continue volunteering for the local humane society as an example.


Personal Health

One of the first things to look at in a situation like this, is what is your personal health risk and what is the health risk of those with whom you live. This is especially of concern if you live in a multi-generational household. If you contracted the disease, could you infect your spouse or significant other? Children? Parents? Grandparents?

I live with my husband and three cats. (I’m not worried about the cats.) My husband and I are both in our 60’s, so there is some risk there. More importantly, though, he has a heart condition. Contracting COVID-19 could be extremely risky for him. Of course, if I get it, it is very likely he will get it from me. So, we both need to be careful.

Geographic Location

An important consideration is the prevalence of COVID-19 where you live. For your state what is the current number of cases? Percent positive? Hospitalizations? Deaths? How do the numbers compare to other states? (Looking at per capita information can sometimes provide a better indicator of how your state compares to others.) If these are high, your risk of contracting COVID-19 is greater than if they are low.

Also look at your county information. Your state might not be in a very good place, but maybe your county is. The reverse can also be true, of course.

The state we live in is not the best in the nation, but it’s certainly not a hot spot. It’s about in the middle. The same is true of our county. It’s not the best, but it’s not the worst in the state. The percentage of positive cases is rising, however, so that is something I need to watch. Overall, though, I think the location risk is relatively low.

Work Facility

This, too, is an important consideration. What is the building like? Are the rooms large or small? Good air circulation or poor? Many people to a room or few? Do you stay in one place all day or move around? These factors impact the likelihood of contracting the disease.

The humane society building is older, small, with several small rooms. The reception area and adoption room are a little larger . The ventilation is probably not very good.

Since I volunteer to foster cats and kittens, I don’t need to spend much time in the building. I spend about 10-20 minutes per visit to pick up kittens, bring them in for shots, and bring them in to be adopted. These visits are spaced out over weeks.

The risk to work in the building would be too high for my comfort. The risk for fostering is relatively low, however, as the vast majority of my time taking care of the kittens is done in my home.

Work Policies

If there are policies in place, and enforced, to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, that, of course, decreases the risk of contracting it. Are employees required to social distance? Wear masks? Wear masks all the time? (If employees take masks off, and if they have COVID-19, they can be expelling viruses in aerosols which can stay in stagnant air for hours. Other people can then breathe these in, even through masks.) Is there routine testing available? What is done with the test results–are they used to prevent the spread of the illness?

Are customers required to wear masks? Are suppliers or others entering the workplace required to wear masks? Are there barriers in place as appropriate, such as plexiglass in front of cashiers? Are frequent handwashing and/or sanitizers readily available? Are other policies in place as appropriate for the specific workplace?

Policies, of course, mean nothing if they are not consistently enforced, for both employees and others.

The humane society has put some good policies in place. The building is open by appointment only. Adopters fill out an application online. They also choose their new pets online. They don’t see the pets until they come in to adopt them. (Of course, they can choose not to adopt at that time for any reason. So far as I know, no one has.) Adopters are also required to wear masks when they enter the building. These polices are enforced.

Employees and volunteers of the shelter are also required to wear masks. This is not consistently enforced. Masks are worn when adopters are in the building, but not consistently otherwise.

This inconsistency creates the highest risk in this situation.

Risk Assessment

After assessing the level of risk for a situation, the next good step is to look to see if there is any way to reduce the risk further. For example, would your employer be willing to implement stricter policies? Could you work at a time when there are fewer people in the building, or at least in your area? Could you wear a face shield in addition to a face mask?

Because of the inconsistency of mask-wearing by employees and volunteers, I do not spend any more time in the building than I must. I can’t control what happens when I am not there, but I can ask people to wear masks who are not when I am there, which could help in increasing education and consistency. I can wear an extra filter in my mask. If I wanted to, I could wait in the car and ask one of the employees to bring the kittens out or to take them into the building, then I would not even have to enter the building. I don’t think the risk is high enough (at least not now) to do that, however. Besides, I really enjoy meeting my fosterlings’ new family. It makes me feel good to see that the kittens are going to good people.


What rewards are there for you in your job? Perhaps the biggest reward is a paycheck that you must have. Maybe the rewards are other things that you must have such as insurance, sick leave, and other benefits.

Are there other rewards that the job brings you? Is it something you enjoy? It is something that makes you feel good about yourself?

Is there some way to increase the rewards? Hazard pay, perhaps? Flexibility to work some days from home? A promotion? More flexibility in how you complete your responsibilities?

Since this is volunteer work, the only reward is that it makes me feel good. The kittens make me laugh. And they constantly remind me that a world that has kittens in it can’t be all bad.

Risk/Reward Analysis

When you look at the level of risk and the level of rewards for your situation, which is highest? Do the rewards make the risks worth it? Or are the risks so high that no, the rewards are not worth the risks? The only right answer to that question is what is right for you.

Another thing to consider is that you can probably change your mind later. If the situation changes which either changes the risks or the rewards, you might want to change your mind.

In my case, the overall risk is pretty low. And the rewards are high. It’s also easy for me to stop fostering for awhile if the situation changes. I’ve fostered two litters this season and will soon be ready for a third.


If you are trying to make a decision, especially in the era of COVID-19, determining the risks and rewards, and then analyzing them for how high or low they are, can assist you in making a decision that is good for you.

Something else to keep in mind is how the situation you are evaluating fits in with everything else that you are doing. If you are taking steps to keep everything else as low risk as possible, then maybe you can do something that is a little riskier. For example, I use curbside pickup for groceries and household items to reduce overall risk.

And remember, what is good for you might not be for someone else. This is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Be respectful to those that make decisions that are different from what you would make just as you would want them to respect your decisions. And be respectful of the health of others.


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