March 13, 2021 — A Year of Living at Work

Over the past few days, the numbers have been repeated in all manner of media reports and retrospectives: 898,000 cases (846,000 of which have fully recovered) across Canada, over 22,000 dead and, for some, 52 weeks of working from home. In Ottawa alone, 15,400 residents have tested positive; 446 individuals have died. Since the start of February, 25–80 new cases are being confirmed here, day after day after day — and the number rose to 94 today, the highest single-day total since January 21. Obviously, the vaccine roll-out — at the moment, appointments are mostly only available to those over age 90 — can’t come quickly enough.

We have now all been living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and all the uncertainty and disruption associated with it, for a full year. Have we adjusted to the new measures and realities, or are we barely coping?

In a CBC radio interview, cognitive neuroscientist Natasha Rajah of McGill University suggested that “we’re all feeling the effects of very subtle grief to some extent — if we haven’t lost someone, we’ve lost a way of living.” But it’s not a question with a single response — as has been widely commented upon, we’re not all in this together in the same way. So each of us gravitates toward explanations of the particular circumstances that we most identify with — that is, those which describe and clarify our own experience.

For me, this week, a close approximation was found in a March 12 article in The Globe and Mail, entitled ‘People are at the point of emotional exhaustion’: Why white-collar workers are hitting the pandemic-fatigue wall. In this piece, Tim Kiladze and Tamsin Mcmahon outlined reasons why an increasing number of white-collar professionals are “cracking”.

Setting aside the universal concern — how do my family and I avoid being infected by the virus? — and issues specific to parents of school-age children (including the recently-separated, but that’s a whole other topic), all of whom have been forced to navigate unprecedented upheaval and continual reorganization of school systems, Kiladze and Mcmahon cited two broad and specifically work-related explanations.

Firstly, “the erasure of social connections at work that help people power through long, intense days”. The amalgamation of work and home life has eliminated the “small joys” of office life, such as breaks for coffee, deskside gossip sessions, and lunch hour walks with colleagues. Here at the Brennan Avenue satellite office of the Northern Affairs Organization, conversations with current ‘co-workers’ Flossie, Leo and Charlie are decidedly one-sided, aside from their occasionally loudly-voiced expressions of displeasure regarding my inattentiveness to refilling their food dishes. As for my actual (human) team, I now have 5 colleagues in my 12-person group that I haven’t met except through a screen; the others I have seen only once over the course of the entire pandemic — at a two-hour picnic last June, a full 9 months ago.

Admittedly, I can be a bit of a loner at work; my preferred midday outings — running, whenever weather permits, on the Ottawa River trail which begins by the Gatineau office, or rummaging through the Hull outlet of St Vincent de Paul — are solitary pursuits. But back in normal times, pre-March 2020, it was impossible to work and sit in close proximity with colleagues on Strategic Policy and Integrations Directorate’s ‘SPID Row’ and not take part in workplace banter and gossip, exchange anecdotes about children and learn a little about how everyone spent their time away from the office. In other words, to learn about them as people, rather than only engaging with them as cogs in grinding bureaucratic mechanisms.

Secondly, it has now been documented that, with no clear separation between the office and home, many employees are working more — up to 2.5 additional hours a day beyond what was usual pre-pandemic. As someone cleverly commented on Twitter, “we are not working remotely, we are living at work” — and doing so, ironically, while staring directly at the [on-screen] faces of our colleagues for much longer (more meetings) and at closer proximity than we did while working together in person. This while most have also been forced to either postpone vacations, or rework them as staycations — which amounts, in essence, to vacationing at work.

Pre-pandemic, I commuted to the office by bike, and was typically changed and at my desk before 8:30am. I usually took a full hour for lunch, and the various meetings required moving around the building (occasionally even travelling to other workplaces, or even distant cities, to meet and engage with others in person). My workday ended around 4pm, and I would be home by 4:30pm. Sometimes I didn’t look at my work email again until the following morning.

Fast forward to my current reality: logging into the work system before 8am. Quick time outside at 8:20, when I walk to the school bus stop with Henry and then around a couple of blocks, and again at 3:45 when he returns. Perhaps a run or a quick trip to the library or grocery store at lunch hour. It doesn’t sound that different — even preferable in some ways, such as not having to deal with the winter commute. But the elimination of the social aspects of work has transformed it into a relentless series of solitary tasks, MS Teams meetings (“you’re on mute” — the Groundhog Day of the past twelve months) and gnawing hesitation about turning off the work email before 5pm. All the hours in the same place — at the office/dining room table — without moving beyond the neighbourhood (or, on bad weather days, beyond occasionally relocating to the den) has the unfortunate effect of making the house feel somewhat like a minimum security prison.

I know — First World problems of the securely-employed. And those of us in this position do remark to one another about our luck to not be faced with the stark, pandemic-related economic worries now being experienced by so many. But still, we’d embarked on this type of career not only because it was fulfilling, but also because it had some enjoyable aspects, or even — gasp — perks, and many of those are now gone. (Granted, some odd new perks have resulted from this unexpected way of working — time spent on the porch office last summer, the incorporation of the CKCU program Whatever’s Cool With Me into my weekly Thursday morning routine, which has exposed me to great new music by Ontario artists such as Graven, Summersets and The Weather Station.) While there is of course still satisfaction in knowing that we are working — at least in theory — not for corporate profit but to benefit Canadian society, the way that our work is now being done is just so, so tiring.

“Pandemic fatigue,” suggests Paula Allen, head of research and well-being at Human Resources services provider Morneau Shepell, “underestimates what we’re going through. People are at the point of emotional exhaustion.”

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