Why do we only learn to appreciate our lives when we’re in dire straits?
For me, the occasion was cancer, diagnosed in 2018. One of the most ludicrous things I heard while sick was: “Cancer is a gift.” As if being at death’s door, or somewhere in that neighborhood, bestows wisdom that can’t be gotten any other way. No path to enlightenment should involve the horrors of chemotherapy! But it did give me one lasting adaptation: The resolve to guard my remaining time ferociously. For me, that means resisting overwork and spending more time in my actual life. Hanging out with my loved ones. Just being.
What’s been wild these past few months is watching all of American culture go through a similar wake-up call. No chemo needed.
Right now, we are in the midst of a startling trend. As the country continues to open up – even amid increasing Covid outbreaks – the workforce is showing signs of digging in their heels against returning to pre-pandemic norms. A recent Monster.com survey found that 95% of workers are thinking about looking for a new job.
People - – at least who are in a secure enough position to do so, which is far from describing everyone who feels burdened by their employer – are quitting in a mass exodus that’s been dubbed “the Great Resignation” and “the Big Quit.” They’re refusing to apply for sub-par positions that don’t let them work from home or have flexible hours or make a living wage. The world is full of “Now hiring!” signs in retail stores and restaurants. Businesses are understaffed and struggling to stay open. It’s as if we’ve all become Bartleby, the Scrivener, with his mantra of “I would prefer not to.” Who would have thought we’d see the day, here in the supposedly work-rabid United States?
Prior to the pandemic, many workers would likely have just sucked it up and continued on begrudgingly. We have long been conditioned to accept the status quo of working past the point of physical and mental exhaustion. But a lot of people have come out of this year with their sense of permanency badly shaken. We’ve all seen in a very concrete way how short and fragile life really is. We’ve discovered a lot of our full-time jobs can be done from home, and in half the time, if not less. Some companies, including the New York-based Kickstarter, are already planning to test out four-day workweeks.
Essential workers found out during the pandemic how little some of their bosses cared about worker safety, particularly when it came to protecting the bottom line. Others saw through new eyes the low wages, meager benefits or burnout-inducing expectations that shaped their day-to-day working lives. Now, people are pushing back against returning to the old ways, just as bosses are hoping to corral employees back to the old ways. I love it.
In fact, I propose we go one step further and embrace the notion of laziness. “Lazy” is a word that’s been wrongly weaponized, especially over the past year, to shame anyone who doesn’t jump at the chance to give up unemployment benefits and go back to lower-paying, often risky, working conditions. But laziness is really just the counterpoint to working as hard as you can, and we have a lot of evidence now that that isn’t good for your health – or beneficial to your job. As a writer, I can attest that nothing is more helpful to my productivity and creativity than taking time away from my screen and desk. We all, no matter what line of work we’re in, need downtime to refresh our brains and keep our bodies healthy.
“Lazy” is also, coincidentally, the word some lawmakers have long used to tar the non-healthy among us, the chronically ill. But according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a majority of Americans have at least one chronic disease – and, as long Covid continues to be researched, it’s likely that percentage will only increase. The largest study yet of long Covid symptoms found there are more than 200 of them, including fatigue, brain fog, heart palpitations, and “post-exertional malaise,” defined as a decline in health after physical or mental exertion. A whole lot of us may well end up falling into this “lazy” category.
In 2005, a French author named Corinne Maier wrote a tongue-in-cheek manifesto, Bonjour Laziness, in which she suggested people should work as little as possible at their jobs – and this was in a country with a mandated 35-hour workweek. Even though she got reprimanded by her day job for writing the book, I believe Maier was ahead of her time. What’s become clear over the past year is just how much we all need to do less. Burnout has become its own national epidemic. Countries other than our own seem to have a clearer view of this problem: Just this week, news of Iceland’s experiment with a four-day workweek has shown that “productivity remained the same or improved” with shorter hours.
Still, the reality of what’s possible for workers varies wildly. If your financial situation is perilous, it can feel unsafe to demand more of your employer – or even take time to look around for a different situation.
In this country, health care, outside of employers, remains so expensive that many stick with jobs they don’t love, or even like.
But even if you’re not able to join the Big Quit, we all have the capacity to take back our time in little ways. Corporations will take as much of you as they can get. So give them what it takes to stay employed, to get your job done, but not more. Be as ruthlessly dedicated to your quality of life as companies are to making profits and not sharing them with employees. Lobby for flexible hours, if you feel you can safely do it. If not, just try shirking a little. Don’t show up early, and don’t work late. Take lots of breaks, which, you might want to mention when your boss is in earshot, has been shown to make people more productive. American businesses are highly unlikely to lead a revolution in how, and how much, we work; it will have to be us, the workers.
I would never suggest Covid is a gift – but it could bring a change we’ve desperately needed.