The arrival of autumn saw a surge in the number of Covid-19 cases and hopes of a swift return to normality dashed. Instead, we were presented with another round of lockdowns. Some people have had to shut their businesses, while many others, including office workers, have returned to teleworking. At the same time, bars, restaurants, non-essential shops, cinemas, theatres and museums have closed. For those lucky enough to still have a job, life may now seem to revolve around one thing: work.
When life is all work and no play, what are the psychological consequences? Does giving everything to your job help you to get through the day? Or does it make things worse? In short, what’s the best way to wait out a second lockdown when all you have to do is work, even when it is from home? We met up with Johanna Rozenblum, a clinical psychologist in Paris, to find out more.
With leisure activities off limits and their social lives on hold, people may find that all that’s left to do is work. How might that affect their psychological state?
In the current situation, many of us feel like we’ve lost control: socialising with friends and family is out of the question, and free time doesn’t feel so free any more. In an attempt to avoid becoming passive and inactive when there is so little to do, you might be inclined to compensate by spending more time and effort on your professional life. This is understandable, as feeling connected to your work helps you to stay productive and to feel both useful and fulfilled.
The potential downside, however, is that you may devote too much of your energy to your work. When you’re working from home during a lockdown, your perception of time changes, which leads to the boundaries between working hours and free time becoming blurred. Sometimes, without even realising it, you can find yourself investing too much time in your work without getting anything back. This is because in “normal” times, when you work hard and put in long hours, it’s rewarding to unwind in the evening, perhaps by talking about your day and having fun with your friends and colleagues. This is no longer happening during lockdown. Work is becoming a refuge and is no longer a source of satisfaction.
And that causes frustration?
Frustration, yes, but also anger, the feeling that you are ineffectual and that things are meaningless: “I don’t even know why I’m doing this any more!” Whereas work once played a central role in your life and helped you to maintain your emotional balance, it now threatens to turn against you and this can lead to professional burnout.
So, is it impossible to thrive when all you’ve got is work?
It’s an illusion to think that your wellbeing can depend entirely on work. Wellbeing is a balance that depends on more than just professional fulfilment; you also need the support of good friends and a fulfilling private life. When work becomes a refuge—when it represents your value and social status at the expense of life’s other aspects—it poses some serious risks. For example, you might experience burnout, feel directionless and lose your sense of meaning, especially if you suddenly become unemployed or your workload decreases, as is happening for some people at the moment.
Is that what you observed with the first lockdown?
I’ve observed this sense of discomfort and over-attachment to the professional sphere in my patients since the spring lockdown, and the effects of this have remained until now. They could well worsen with another lockdown.
Especially if lockdown fatigue sets in…
During the first lockdown, every effort and sacrifice made was fuelled by the hope of a positive outcome. We did things to protect ourselves and others, and also to make ourselves feel better under the restrictions. This gave real meaning to the whole undertaking. Today, however, the future seems more uncertain as the restrictions and lockdowns have not led to a return to normal life. Feelings of confusion and disappointment have turned to anger, and [feelings of being unable] to protect ourselves in the same way we managed to during the first lockdown. When it’s no longer about self-protection, you can end up feeling frozen in the present and tangled up in dark thoughts that may plunge you into despair. This second lockdown is like starting a new marathon when you haven’t yet recovered from your previous one.
Frustration, loss of meaning, exhaustion… how can you identify these feelings? Do these side-effects manifest in physical or psychological disorders?
The main disorders I’ve observed in my practice are anxiety disorders. Symptoms can include depressive episodes, including anhedonia [the inability to feel pleasure], sadness, very dark visions of the overall situation, a lack of energy and motivation, even sleep disorders. But most of the time, these are somatic manifestations––experienced physically in the body––and, through verbalising how they are feeling, patients realise that they are suffering psychologically and need to address that. We must remain attentive to our emotions in order to take good care of our mental health. Anxiety can be worked on with a psychologist, but in the case of diagnosed depressive episodes, medication may be required for support.
In your patients, do you see changes in their relationship with work?
Serious consequences include the loss of meaning and the loss of pleasure in their work. Many people are aware that they are working extra hard out of an instinct to survive: some do it to protect their jobs because, as we know, there are many people who have become unemployed because of the crisis, while others do it in order to hold onto their work routines and rhythm, but it’s not for the love of work that people do this. Instead, work becomes a means to counteract fear, uncertainty, anger, all those unpleasant emotions that put your psychological wellbeing in danger. Work can be a lifeline to get through tough times, but in the long run, this is not viable. As soon as possible, we need to find balance anew.
How can we minimise the negative effects on morale when working from home in lockdown?
The number one priority is to avoid isolation. It is absolutely necessary to keep in contact with others and to stay connected, even if it’s virtually, with colleagues, friends and family. It’s important to verbalise your feelings and experiences. But to do this, it’s vital to pay close attention to your emotions. You might feel pain or anger, which are both reasonable and normal feelings. Some days will be less pleasant than others. You have to learn to listen to yourself and take it easy when necessary.
Do you have any practical advice on how to cope with everyday professional life at home?
Having a daily rhythm is very important. So I advise you to try to keep the same routine as the one you usually have at the office. For example, wake up at a set time in the morning and take the time to get ready. Just as importantly, this means setting hours to work and hours when you don’t work. Turn off the computer during non-work time and move on to something else. You need to have more in your life than just work. And if dark thoughts creep in, it’s a good idea to find solace by trying to recall better times. This is known as a compensatory strategy. Don’t hesitate to pick up the phone. Call your colleague or have a coffee together over a video call. Reaching out to others is a natural antidepressant. Finally, you must make sure to get outside and get some fresh air when you can.
And how can you stay motivated?
Maintaining a healthy work-life balance is the key to wellbeing. Above all, ensure that work doesn’t stop you from leading a fulfilling life. The need to connect, to laugh, to escape, to make time for yourself is just as important now, especially at this time. Think about what brought you solace and comfort in “normal” times.
Will this second lockdown be easier for teleworkers who already went through the first?
It absolutely depends on what you experienced during the first lockdown! People who had a bad experience the first time round may have a lot of apprehension and perceive the new lockdown as a punishment. On the other hand, others will have put in place coping strategies to enable them to overcome any difficulties like those they encountered during the first lockdown. For these people, this new lockdown can be approached with greater confidence. It will be really useful to practise what you learned during the spring lockdown. Remember what worked well for you and what was harmful to your mental health, and then make the necessary adjustments.
What happens next? Will our way of life and way of working change permanently?
It is difficult to know what this crisis and the two lockdowns will change in each of us. However, it is likely that people will prioritise becoming comfortable in themselves, and having their loved ones by their side again. A lengthy study, beginning in 1938, was conducted at Harvard in an attempt to understand what made people happy. For 75 years, more than 700 participants, including President John F Kennedy, were followed by doctors, psychologists and researchers. In 2016, the main overall finding was revealed to be that it’s not social success that makes people happy, it’s the quality of their social connections. Maybe the pandemic will make us rethink our priorities, which would be a good way to give some kind of purpose and meaning to all that we are going through at the moment!
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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