Prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, leaving work at work was a simple process for many of us. Arriving at and leaving the office represented (most of the time) a definite start and end to our working day. Train journeys, bus rides, walks, and bike rides to work gave us a chance to plan and rehearse the day ahead. The journey home from the office allowed us an opportunity to process our day, dial down from work stresses and re-enter a mental space where we were able to relax and give time to the rest of our lives and our selves. With the advent of smartphones, even this routine has lost its power to protect our home life from the intrusion of work, but the structure was there nonetheless, and many of us clung to it like a lifeline, our legs dangling above the abyss of burnout.
Lockdown took from many of us this work life balance safety net. It blurred even more the lines between work and home. Groggily we stumble out of bed, sleep walk over to our computers and fire them up peering at emails through blurry, bloodshot eyes before we have said our first word. We dive headfirst into our workday before we have had a positive interaction with anyone in our lives, before we have done anything positive for ourselves, often before we have thought about anything else at all.
Work starts our day, and often ends it, as we squeeze in one more email late at night because it’ll only take a minute and the computer is right there and then we won’t have to do it tomorrow and we might as well as wish we had and so on and so on.
Our intellectual brains are incredibly adept at offering up rationale for decisions driven by our emotional brains, which is where, thanks to months of a less than fantastic work life balance, many of us have found ourselves. Buried deep in our emotional primitive minds, swimming in stress.
This continual state of high stress impacts us physically, mentally, and emotionally. We respond to comments from friends and colleagues with paranoia and self doubt. WhatsApp messages from friends build up like an overwhelming mountain of admin. We fire back work emails too quickly. We are rushed and defensive. We are distracted in our interactions with family members. We can’t remember what we had for lunch and whether we had any at all. Making dinner looms like a mammothian challenge and we end up reaching for the cornflakes. Our sleep starts to feel unsatisfying and inadequate. Our skin breaks out and we experience aches and pains we have never experienced before. Everything feels slightly out of control.
In the absence of a ready made structure that can support some form of work-life balance, how can we protect our lives beyond work? Different strategies will work for different personalities, but a good place to start is by asking ourselves what will I do to care for myself today? Perhaps this question alone might open the door to how we might better care for ourselves tomorrow.