From school closures to shuttered businesses to mass layoffs to fears of getting sick, every passing hour gives us something new to worry about. In the midst of this madness, many of us are also dealing with employers that expect us to smoothly transition from working in an office to working from home and carry on as if everything is normal.
“Working from home” is not the same as “working from home during a pandemic.” What’s happening right now is unprecedented in modern American history, and it is absolutely, one hundred per cent ok to not be fully productive. It is completely normal to be stressed.
If it’s difficult to feel grateful about anything right now, remember that those of us who can work from home are the lucky ones. A lot of people are out of work. A lot more people have to go to work—whether they work in a hospital, a grocery store, or perform one of the many other essential jobs—where they risk getting sick.
But that doesn’t mean this isn’t hard. It’s been a century since the United States has experienced a pandemic of this scope. Never in any of our lifetimes has so much of the world around us been so shut down for so long, and we’ve certainly never lived with so many restrictions on where we can go and what we can do and who we can hug. There’s never been a time when so many of us have been so worried about keeping our loved ones healthy and safe.
We’ve experienced national emergencies before. We’ve worried about dangers posed by factors outside our control. But we have never faced this kind of omnipresent existential threat. It is absolutely pathological to expect people to carry on with work as though nothing is happening.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve heard that Isaac Newton developed brilliant theories while quarantined from the plague. Shakespeare may have turned to sonnets when the death toll forced the theatres to close.
Good for Newton and Shakespeare. We are not them. For starters, many of us have to handle cooking, cleaning and childcare, while also carrying out the paid work that keep a roof over our head. We don’t have the luxury of time to come up with a theory of universal gravitation or pen a literary masterpiece.
As much as I would like to use these strange circumstances to focus on my passion projects, I can’t. For starters, I just don’t have the time. (See above.) If you don’t either, all that means is that you live in the real world, like everyone else.
Before you beat yourself up for not being more productive, let’s walk through all of the reasons this is not a normal work from home situation.
Unless you are in a position where you have no extraordinary family obligations, no family members whose health you need to worry about, and no added work pressure due to the cratering economy—and you also possess a superhuman ability to ignore the unceasing barrage of bad news—then you are now dealing with a lot of additional worries and responsibilities.
This is not normal. This is not a typical work from home set-up. Most of us are scraping by, trying to make ends meet while trying to keep everyone around us safe from a deadly, invisible threat.
Right now this means juggling childcare and homeschooling and cooking and cleaning and keeping a lid on your anxiety, all while obsessing over what measures we need to take to stay healthy and, oh yeah, I have a meeting in thirty minutes, but my son just fell and split his lip and is bleeding, and oh my goodness, I just remembered I have a report due tomorrow and I have to find the time to get it done, don’t I? It’s a lot.
Bubbling underneath these already heightened day-to-day worries are others that inspire a deep, screaming terror: You might get sick and die, leaving behind people who depend on you; you might be the unwitting person who infects your grandmother or your cousin who’s recovering from chemotherapy. Every trip out of the house is fraught with danger. Every minor interaction is gilded with ominous import.
This is not “working from home and being more productive because we don’t have to commute.” This is a modern plague. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, tell them how wrong they are, in no uncertain terms. And while you’re it, remind yourself as well.