Burnout Is Our Next Big Threat

The cost of all these new public boundaries is the erosion of our private spaces, writes Sophie Wilkinson.

During the tense and frustrating hours that turned into endless days of election coverage, where maps of Arizonan counties began taking up as much mental real estate as concepts like “go to bed” and “you’ve never even been to Arizona”, I kept wondering something.

No, not why a country that voted for Donald Trump four years ago almost voted for him again. Not why infamously sore winner Trump was turning out to be a sore loser too. What I really couldn’t fathom was at what point during the rehearsal for this fluorescent parade of antiquated ballot-counting techniques did then New Yorker writer Jeff Toobin decide that it was time to touch himself.

Because during an election rehearsal, that’s what the esteemed lawyer did – exposed himself on a Zoom with colleagues. He’s long since apologised for the mistake, explaining he didn’t know his camera was on. He was suspended impending investigations into the incident, and has since been sacked.

Alistair Berg via Getty Images

While Toobin’s colleagues will know the incursions of using a home as a workplace, seeing a colleague’s penis was never meant to be one. It’s very clear from this incident that boundaries were crossed.

The issue of delineating those boundaries has never been more pertinent since covid has forced a large proportion of the workforce to transition to home working.

And boundaries will continue to be crossed – in smaller, or shall I say less revolting ways – so long as people continue to work from home. And yet, this week, Google’s CFO Ruth Polat spoke with glee at how more micromanaging and “check-ins” have upped employees’ productivity as they continue to adjust to this “new normal”.

This is hot on the tails of Deutsche Bank recommending work-from-homers be taxed for the privilege at a rate of 5% because they’re saving on the commute and a trip to Pret. The implication of the bank’s suggestion is that working from home is an easy ride. But as Sartre put it, hell is other people. And when you’re working from your own home, other people are right there with you.

From the two-metre rule to the borders of our lockdowns, from the graded tier system to the Nando’s flavour chart of risk, the rubrics to order this disordered time are as much a talking point as the fear of the actual virus. The only good thing about lockdown 2.0, truly, is that we don’t have to keep track of the rules. At least until discussions of Christmas come up.

The cost of all these public boundaries is the erosion of our private spaces. Back-to-back video-conferences that could’ve been a call. Work WhatsApps into the small hours that we actually respond to. And if we don’t, well, what’s our excuse? Those able to work feel a grateful obligation, and it’s not like there’s much else on.

“The digital age has offered us flexibility, and too often employers – sometimes with the government’s blessing, sometimes thanks to our fearful, dog-loyal desperation to retain work – have bent this to suit them.”

Some argued that if Toobin made an honest mistake he should be given a break – after all, who is obliged to be 100% professional at home?

And while perhaps it’s hard to feel sympathy for Toobin, that side of the argument has some better test cases. In the same week Toobin was suspended, Loose Women presenter Stacey Solomon, Zooming in from her sofa, was asked to blow out a nearby candle by a fellow panellist. Upset viewers had been calling in to complain that Solomon may have risked setting her curtains alight.

Is it really up to people nowhere near someone else’s house to police what they do in there? Is the constant access we have to each other’s homes, our intimate lives, really something we should get used to? Is the freedom to do what we want in our own homes at risk the moment we let others in, even virtually?

Over 60% of adults are experiencing mental health issues related to the pandemic and the HR professional body the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development has warned: “Some employees are working longer or more irregular hours and many are combining work with home-schooling and other family responsibilities, leading to a poor work-life balance.”

The biggest risk of blurring the boundaries of personal and professional, of always feeling “on”, is burnout. This will harm us and our economy.

Any safe vaccine spells a cure to this horrific virus. The “new normal”, as we called it in the earlier stages of this pandemic, when the prospects of Danish mink upsetting football games, a post-Christmas quarantine of a month and cronyism running to the billions were still quite alien, is back in our sights. But we also need a cure to the notion that it’s fine for the boundaries between work and play to be as blurry as a masked glasses wearers’ vision on a foggy November morning.

My wifi connection understands the logistical difficulties of working from home, but what are the ethical? When our laptops beam blue-lighted portals into our homes, mutually revealing our sanctuaries to one another, what is work and what is not?

The digital age has offered us flexibility, and too often employers – sometimes with the government’s blessing, sometimes thanks to our fearful, dog-loyal desperation to retain work – have bent this to suit them.

We must all heave the line back in place; not text about work outside of work hours, actually leave work – wherever that may be – during lunch breaks and not feel obliged to work in the evenings just to get ahead of the next tired day.

First, just with all Coronavirus-era rules we long to break, we need to know it’s safe to do so.

Sophie Wilkinson is a freelance journalist.

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