For a time, home was a window on the world—an odd encampment where we zoomed through business meetings, walked our kids through online schooling, and at the end of the day, struggled with a surfeit of solitude or too damn much togetherness. What will the balance of home and work look like in the months ahead? How do we manage the transition back to normal life? Here are a few simple rules.
During the pandemic, those of us who worked in service jobs, for non-profits, and from home, went into overdrive. For months, I was glued to the computer, putting in 65-hour weeks, eager to give others a leg up in the process of reinventing home. The themes I chose ranged from personal to the political. Men At Home explored how the other sex creates a sense of sanctuary, while At Home in America asked, Who feels at home in a divided country?
As each issue grew longer and more ambitious, I did it all–writing, editing, design, and social media—until this January I ended up in a cardiology clinic. There I learned that my heart was structurally sound but I was suffering from the perils of work-related stress.
I’m not the only one with pandemic burnout. In the past eighteen months, Americans have become even more obsessed with productivity. The average worker has learned what every freelancer knows in her bones: You work harder, and more intensely, when you work alone.
Researchers have now amassed a ton of data on “death by overwork.” Their biggest finding? America has been steadily catching up with Japan, a society that coined a special word for this kind of terminal exhaustion (karoshi).
A recent New York Times editorial warns of the “harmful medical, mental and social consequences of spending too much time on the job, calling to mind that old saw first recorded in the 17th century, All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
That should be revised to “makes Jack a dead boy,” according to a joint report from World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization. This new study confirms that working 55 or more hours a week is a “serious health hazard.”
So listen up. Deadline-itis is the new disease—and there is no vaccine.
Now is the time to question what we value and how hard we drive ourselves. Among the warning signs of overwork: Home ceases to be a safe haven. The living room is cluttered with references books and paper, and even sleep ceases to be a sanctuary.
Recently, I dreamt that I lifted a poor, emaciated gerbil off a spinning wheel, lovingly wrapped him in a soft blanket, and told him to have a good long rest. It was my first step back to sanity.
Be prepared to compromise.
During the pandemic, we learned to put up with one another’s quirks. When my fiancé and I holed up in a tiny cottage, his passion for cable news often collided with my need to sit quietly and empty out my mind. Eventually, we found a middle ground, tuning in to My Octopus Teacher and David Attenborough’s Blue Planet — programs that were both information-packed and a form of meditation.
When Covid restrictions lifted, we started looking for a house that would give us room to breathe. That’s when we experienced the shock of the “new normal.” For the last 18 months, families had been fleeing the city for the suburbs. As a result, there’s very little inventory. New listings are snapped up within 24 hours by cash buyers who are willing to pay as much as 20 percent over the asking price.
If you’re trying to suss out the “new normal,” here are four more takeaways.
Remote work is here to stay.
Yes, working from home was challenging. But most Americans prefer a cramped office in the dining room or bedroom to a corporate cubicle. According to a study by the Best Practice Institute, 83 percent of CEOs want employees to return to the office, yet only 10 percent of employees want to come back full time.
“This is going to be a major flashpoint,” Korn Ferry recruiter Melissa Swift told Business Week. “There is a belief in our culture that we’ve proven that most jobs can be done virtually. But that’s not the belief within the leadership of organizations, so we’re headed for a real clash.”
For Millennials, this is a generation war. According to Bloomberg News, younger workers are quitting rather than going back to what they view as too much workplace supervision—-a situation that feels too much like “parental oversight.”
“They feel like we’re not working if they can’t see us,” said Portia Twidt, 33, “It’s a boomer power play.” The day her company re-opened, Twidt dropped her kids off at daycare and drove to her office in Marietta, Georgia, to hand in her resignation.
A recent survey showed that 39 percent of American workers would consider quitting if their employers weren’t flexible about remote work. Among millennials and Gen Z, that figure was 49 percent.
It’s harder to get anywhere.
Remember how we marveled at the quiet, waking up to bird song and a plenitude of fresh air? Well, cars are back and so is the roar of traffic, and rush hour is harder to predict. The New York Times reports, “With many people still working from home or moving to hybrid work, morning rush hour starts later, only ramping up at around 9 a.m. The evening rush now begins at about 3 p.m. And with subway ridership still hovering at less than half its pre-pandemic level, and many people shifting to cars, transit reporters say that the city’s streets are now mired in traffic that lasts all day.”
Bay Area commuters are also complaining about the chaos. Where we once organized carpools and ride shares, it’s now a kind of free for all—more cars on the road with fewer people in them. Here rush hour starts as early as 3 PM and rush hour can run until 7:00. There’s just no telling when you’ll be able to walk in the door, do your best Ricky Ricardo impression: “Honey, I’m home.”
Coming out of isolation is awkward.
The pandemic has also impacted the art of conversation. After months of social deprivation, many of us have forgotten how to make amiable small talk. The first thing that pops out of our mouths is often an unfiltered thought. A simple, “How are you?” may be met with a soul-wrenching confession: “I’m depressed. I’ve gained ten pounds.” “Work is insane. Bob and I are fighting.” and “Oh my god, I have no friends.”
It’s like we spent the past year and a half on a desert island and forgot the basics of communication.
The New York Times feature, Feeling Socially Rusty? Try a bit of gossip reminds us why we take delight in commenting on the lives of others. Yet a recent article in The New Yorker suggests that we no longer care. Celebrity news no longer grabs us, nor are we as tuned in to office politics.
Worried about getting together with folks you haven’t seen for well over a year? Well, you’re not alone. “I’m not ready to go back to so-called normal life,” said Susan Ives, an environmentalist and media consultant in the Bay Area. “This has been a very inward time; we just can’t go from zero to ninety on the relationship front. Some friendships have deepened but others have fallen by the wayside. Realistically, it will take a while to sort this out.”
The American Psychological Association notes that nearly half of all Americans still feel uneasy about face-to-face encounters, whether they’ve been fully immunized or not.
For over a year and a half, our knee-jerk reaction has been to withdraw and protect ourselves. Suddenly we’re moving from deep introversion to the land of dinner parties and face-to-face debriefings with family and friends. So be prepared for a few awkward moments.
We’ve all been changed.
There’s something frightening yet galvanizing about a brush with death—and it’s fascinating how the mind tries to process it.
According to Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, in the early days of the pandemic people dreamt of being attacked by aliens and insects. Yet as time went on, they had visions of blue skies and flowing rivers, and peacefully grazing animals. It’s as though the unconscious were trying to reassure us by giving us a glimpse of a better world.
We’ve been radically changed by all this time in hibernation. Jungian analyst Jean Shinoda Bolen says his has been a liminal time, and we’re not sure who we are—as individuals or as a society.
So what comes next? The big debate right now is whether we will enter a new era of social consciousness or launch into another version of the Roaring ’20s with a hedonistic, “cut-loose-and-live” response to months of loss and deprivation.
The answer, probably, is a bit of both.
Re-entry is going to be a little wobbly. As we come back to center stage, we may feel a bit like Ginger Rogers, dancing backward in high heels.
Join us for a deep conversation.
Interested in these themes and in the larger topic of the inner life of home?
Thursday afternoons in July we’ll be launching a Zoom conversation, “Tell Your Story of Home,” in collaboration with Caroline Ingeborn of Leap. This tech start-up has a mission—to connect people around meaningful themes. For the last few months, they’ve been organizing deep conversations for people 55 and over. We’ll explore how our concept of home has changed during the pandemic and how it shapes our creativity and relationships. Learn more here. These classes are small and intimate. They fill up fast, so so be sure to sign up early.