What we missed while working from home

Photo: Getty Images The number of suicides...



Photo:

Getty Images

The number of suicides and overdoses continues to rise and the market for counseling services and therapists continues to grow. This legacy of the pandemic, which appears to be ending after two years, is deeply troubling. What are the existential reasons for these trends? By existential, I mean how we see ourselves as humans and find meaning in our lives.

Before the Enlightenment, religion imposed meaning on most people’s lives. They would go to a church, a synagogue or a mosque, and this, and related rituals and events – baptisms and weddings, choir practices and social activities – structured the way people related to each other and found a senses.

As belief in God waned, work-related structures replaced religious structures. People were fighting for fewer hours at work and more time off until many had a five-day 9-to-5 work week, with weekends off and annual vacations. A regular work schedule gave people something to rely on and plan for. When Calvin Coolidge declared in 1925 that “American business is business”, he praised the importance of productive work in American society but also, indirectly, the way in which work structures and gives meaning to life.

For knowledge workers in particular, the pandemic has challenged that idea. What is the existential outcome of being housebound working on a computer? What does it mean to live in a world where workers can go back and forth between studying a spreadsheet and doing laundry or emailing a supervisor and watching an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm”?

Before the pandemic, the internet had already made the lives of many workers more fluid, but the virus has taken that to another level. It made people more responsible for the structure – or lack of structure – of their work. It is empowering in some ways, but it can also cause confusion and anomie. Many workers no longer have a clear demarcation between work and leisure and have lost the accidental elements that connected them to each other. Too much control over when and how we work isolates and limits opportunities for relaxation and creativity.

For many white-collar workers, the pandemic has raised the question of what is essential in the work they do and what is simply done for looks. For some, the whole reason for having a job has crumbled, prompting the so-called Great Resignation. But most workers have simply reassessed the value of the workplace. How many trips are really necessary to serve a customer? How many staff meetings can take place online? How many days, if any, do we actually have to be in the office? In an increasingly data-driven society, face-to-face interaction seems too insignificant a variable to consider. Yet the drinking, tantrums, and general unease of many Americans suggest that something is seriously wrong. The World Health Organization reported a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide, and a 2021 Census Bureau survey found that 30% of American adults had symptoms of anxiety or of depression.

In-person meetings might not matter, but chats, lunches, and happy hours do. Even the routes we had in mind had the value of keeping us in touch with our cities. We need to figure out how to maintain these structures before we throw away all of our pre-pandemic work habits and move into our home offices.

Meeting other people, seeing their facial expressions and gestures, noticing what they eat for lunch, confiding our frustrations and celebrating our triumphs, admiring the familiar sights of our towns and villages – all of this helps to clarify our position in the world. Covid has isolated us from this world, but it has also slowed us down and forced us to assess what is important. This should prevent us from losing sight of what gets us up in the morning and what makes life worth living.

Ms. Cohen is Dean of Honors College at Drexel University and author of “Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy”.

Wonder Land: While Joe Biden’s ‘State of the Union’ speech offered words of support for Ukraine, the president didn’t offer defense spending increases because it would go to the against his progressive agenda. Images: CNP/Zuma/AFP/Getty Images Composed: Mark Kelly

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