Before working from home became the new normal, many ironically advocated for telecommuting. The prestigious magazine, Scientific American, in an article dated in 2016, made a case for abandoning the office in favour of our “home sweet office.” Citing scientific studies, the SA claimed that homebound workers are more productive, happy, and satisfied with their jobs than “colleagues tethered to cubicles.” Yet, as 2020 confined most of the world into lockdowns, people are eager to get back to an in-person working environment.
By dissolving the already-thin boundary between work and life, teleworking caused off-site workers to work three hours longer than average. As if a global pandemic was not stressful enough, an always-on culture had begun to replace the 9-to-5 workday, compromising both our mental and physical health. A recent survey by OnePoll, where one-third respondents blamed working from home for exhaustion and over half reported longer workday, confirmed this bothersome trend. Alarmingly, average burnout age has also lowered significantly, and our Gen Z is disproportionately taking the toll.
While these shortcomings can be explained by the fact that the pandemic itself is indeed confusing and stressful — and that our homes are not designed to be workplaces — my own experience points directly towards Zoom. Most of my friends at Georgetown and other institutions share the same dilemma: working and learning remotely is stressful and exhausting. Some have even been experiencing insomnia. “Electronic fatigue syndrome” is the scientific term for this.
Before the pandemic hit, I could not have imagined the likelihood of spending over 10 hours a day in a virtual environment. Besides online lectures, most of my interaction with the university is through a screen as well. New Student Orientation (NSO) was virtual. Textbooks are virtual. Gossip is virtual. Clubs are virtual. Open Mic Night is virtual.
I did try to reduce my screen time as much as I could. My Proseminar professor suggested investing in a Kindle to read eBooks, and I can attest that its paper-like screen is indeed less tiring than having my laptop’s four million pixels projecting their light beam to my retina. But it’s not a seamless process either: not all textbooks and handouts can be imported to your eReader. Likewise, you can try to turn on the Night Shift anti-blue-light filter on your phone or laptop, but it wouldn’t make much a difference anyway, unfortunately.
While we cannot change the reality of remote working — at least while the risk of exposure to the virus is still high — we can still try to make it less exhausting. The first step is to acknowledge that it sucks, and it’s not our fault. It’s okay to mess up — after all, nobody expects anything of this scale to happen in 2020. Instead of looking at survivorship-biased examples of Sir Isaac Newton inventing calculus or William Shakespeare writing “King Lear” during their self-isolation amid the bubonic plague centuries ago, let’s stop the productivity self-shaming and pay a bit attention to our physical and mental health. Spend some minutes on meditation. Take some fresh air while jogging outdoors (if possible). Try to reduce the time spent on social media. Call a friend. Take a nap. Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to “make the most of a global pandemic.”