Tuesday , September 29 2020

Are you panic-working amid outbreak?

Just two days after the French government’s lockdown went into effect, the bakery in my village outside Paris started rationing baguettes. The limit of five per family per day is still a lot of bread, but it is disconcerting that anyone is trying to stockpile the most perishable of loafs.
I can’t judge them, however. Although I haven’t been panic-buying, I have been panic-working. From home, of course, where we are all now confined. The first day, I decided that this spell of seclusion would be an opportunity to cleanse my inbox of unanswered messages. I then made a list of pending projects, figuring I could cram two new ones into this unexpectedly sick spring. I took part in hastily scheduled Zoom meetings, checked in on a client, and bantered with colleagues in several new WhatsApp groups. I had learned from my research on gig workers that boundaries are key when working from home, so I stuck to a schedule, took breaks for family meals, and helped the kids with their homework. By the time I went to bed at 3 am after binging on the news, I was exhausted, edgy and miserable.
I am not the first to struggle with the transition to working from home. Freelancers have told me and my collaborators how tough it can be. “I’ll eat lunch at 4:30. I’m sitting at my desk, working, shaking because I’m so hungry,” said a software designer. “And you just forget, you just lose track of things,
because there’s nobody around you.” Gig workers obsess about staying productive too. Their livelihood depends on it. But obsessing can be debilitating. “You feel like, ‘Produce, produce, produce, keep it coming.’ You’re only as good as your latest thing,” one writer admitted, explaining that he had to squelch that inner critic to do his best work.
As job security has waned in many organisations, professional work has increasingly taken on the characteristics of gig work, and salaried workers share some of the anxieties of freelancers, whether we realise it or not. The current crisis has only made this more painfully obvious.
As the coronavirus has spread around the globe, I’ve been hearing similar tales from colleagues and friends, all keen to do the best they can in these stressful circumstances. With our health at stake, jobs on the line, companies struggling, hospitals overwhelmed and markets melting, panic-working might even sound sensible. How could we drop our tools at the very moment when we need all hands on deck?
Psychoanalysts have a name for such frenetic behaviour and the magical thinking that goes with it—a manic defense.
Like all defenses, the obsession with staying productive is a source of dubious comfort. It sustains the pretense that if we work hard enough, we can hold onto the world we once knew.
It shields us from feeling powerless in the face of events, but it comes at a high price. It costs us our connection to reality, to our experience, and to others. We become incapable of appraising the situation, acknowledging our feelings about it, and being present to others. We become numb. Eventually, we fall apart because we have tried too hard to keep ourselves together.

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