Work in the Time of the Pandemic

By Arpita Joshi

In the 1930’s John Maynard Keynes, the famous British economist known as the father of modern macroeconomics, wrote an essay making a prediction about the future of work. Titled Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, the essay confidently declared that in the decades ahead work hours would shrink with greater economic prosperity and “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” To put it in short, Keynes predicted that one of the problems of the future generations would not be how to get a job or how to survive but how to occupy wisely the leisure granted by our jobs.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Fast forward to 2021, take a look at ILO’s Global Wage Report 2020-21 and we unearth quite the opposite trend. India ranked fifth in the world among countries with long working hours reportedly stretching up to 48 hours a week or more. And it’s not just the poor who struggle with long hours. Surprisingly, among Indians it was the well-paid employees, both salaried and self-employed, in urban areas who reported working longer. Added to this according to LinkedIn’s ‘Future of Work’ Study 2021 – 1 in 3 professionals in India felt burnt out due to increased workload (35%) and stress (34%) while working remotely in India through the pandemic. Yet the pandemic might have brought to surface the conversation that was waiting to be had.

Edging towards burnout

Pre-pandemic Ashwini, a HR consultant in a corporate setup noted, “It was a full day’s work. So I think when I would come back, I would probably get a quick break to do something back home. And then we would probably need to get back into meetings later in the evening.” For her the work day was already long and very full. “I think I was almost struggling with it sometimes”, she added. Long work days were reported across sectors in urban white collar jobs as we spoke to different people. Arjun who worked in the fashion industry shared how he remembered “telling everyone I don’t want a nine to five job. And I think I got my wish because I used to work 9 to 11 in the fashion industry, which I wasn’t prepared for.”

Nor was exhaustion and burnout a novel idea cross-sectorally. Arundhati, a development sector consultant said that pre-pandemic she was already on the edge: “There was a real physical burnout that I could feel, but also very real emotional burnout that was starting to affect all my personal relationships. I just found myself being really short with people, being unable to give emotionally in relationships around me, being very, very, very snappy, very quick to lose my temper.” The World Health Organisation in their diagnostic tool, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) define burnout as a ‘syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’ It is characterised by three elements: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and lastly, reduced professional efficacy.

The World Health Organisation in their diagnostic tool, the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) define burnout as a ‘syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.’

Added to the long hours were the work cultures that laid heavy emphasis on constantly showing up even at odd hours, of out-performing oneself year after year and meagre organisational care and support systems. As Arundhati noted: “What ends up happening is that there is a glorification of busy. It’s all pervasive in terms of – with my friends, always talking about it, my family always talking about it. It’s very difficult to create a different value structure when you’re so surrounded by placing value in being busy.” So taking time off for one’s mental health, sabbaticals or even long breaks between jobs – were and still continue to be frowned upon or tagged as ‘unprofessional’ or ‘poor career moves’.

A tragedy unfolds

The pandemic led to an escalation of an already difficult situation for many. As work began shifting online, Vinitha, a head of department and teacher at a city college, shared how, “There ceased to be boundaries between work and home. I felt like I was working all the time and the college management did not take cognisance of it.” A research by Oxfam showed that on a regular day, women in Asia spend 4.1 times more time in care work than men and so it came as no surprise that the lockdowns and isolation also meant that women found themselves particularly overwhelmed. Taranga, a development sector consultant mentioned how, “The care work and domestic work was not only more but also more time consuming because it became more complex.”

Alongside, came the constant hypervigilance and anxiety of contracting a deadly virus and living with the uncertainty of when the pandemic would resolve itself. Abbas, a producer working in the film industry, spoke of how “In the initial days there was so much fear, there was so much uncertainty around what Covid was. How does it transmit and as the first wave was devastating the world over, what were the risks involved for personal health and safety.”

As months turned into a year, the second wave of Covid hit India with terrifying results. The tremendous public health tragedy left no one untouched by its devastation. As ambulance sirens filled the skies, grief – direct and vicarious – was our common experience. Through such a massive crisis many found themselves faced with organisational responses that seemed tone-deaf and incongruent to the context. Arjun noted how, “the amount of pressure that I had at work felt like I was probably making vaccines for Covid whereas I was just making clothes at the end of the day. So it just didn’t feel like such a big deal. But that’s how my work used to feel that it was a really big deal.”

In a May 2021 Bloomberg article, Anthony Klotz, an Associate Professor of management at Texas A&M University who studies the exits of workers very prophetically announced that: “The great resignation is coming”. “The numbers are multiplied”, he warned, “by the many pandemic-related epiphanies—about family time, remote work, commuting, passion projects, life and death, and what it all means—that can make people turn their back on the 9-to-5 office grind.” A 2022 report by the recruitment agency Michael Page shared that The Great Resignation is expected to continue in India with a tremendous 86% of employees surveyed stating that they were planning to resign in the next six months. The 2022 Deloitte Women @ Work Report echoes this stating ‘Fifty-three percent of women surveyed say their stress levels are higher than they were a year ago, and almost half feel burned out. (…) Women are more likely to be looking for a new role than they were a year ago, and burnout is the top driving factor.’

Pandemic epiphanies

While the alarm bells rang in organisations and economic circles about the outcome of The Great Resignation – there was another side to the story.

I’m actually enjoying time for myself”, says Ashwini, who took an 8-month break from work. “I’m enjoying meals, I’m enjoying meeting friends, family, you know, travelling, sunshine, a number of things, which should be a part of your day to day life, it shouldn’t be such a once in a blue moon occasion, right?” Arjun, who quit during the pandemic shared how, “Just to be able to find time to do the little things that you always tend to put off and to realise the amount of joy those little things bring, and to have forgotten all of that in the last 10-12 years. That’s been amazing.”

Arundhati, who also changed jobs shared how having time for herself “felt like gasping for air. You know, my mental health was like it suddenly had access to so much oxygen and felt like it just didn’t know what to do.” While she discovered gardening in her time off, others mentioned rekindling their love for music, learning yoga or following other pursuits which had taken a backseat all these years. They also shared how they were finally able to give quality time to the important people in their lives and build meaningful relationships. Abbas, who shifted to a job which allowed him to work remotely for the first time mentioned how he explored moving to the hills and although the hours were still long, “the fact that I was close to nature, something that I enjoy a lot. With whatever time off that I did have, I could go out and explore the environment around me – go out for walks, go for hikes.”

It is no surprise then that this need for actively re-claiming life is showing up in recent surveys on work. The Great X report suggests that 61% of employees in India are willing to accept a lower salary or forgo a pay rise and/or a promotion for better work-life balance, overall well-being and happiness. According to LinkedIn’s study too, half of India’s workforce believes that work-life balance is just as important as their salary today.

Re-imagining work in our lives

I really didn’t believe before the pandemic, that it was possible to work the way that I have been. The world has shifted to sort of remote working with flexible hours, locations”, mulls Abbas, “so that’s the big shift, something that I thought was impossible. And I know that the same levels of productivity, efficiency can be maintained, we just needed to sort of take a step back, relook at our systems, and processes, mechanisms.”

The outcome of The Great Resignation and the many work experiments that were forced on us collectively by the pandemic have been in many ways profound not just individually but systemically. Not only has hybrid work – work which combines days in office and those working from home – increasingly become the buzzword for the future of work but other exciting ideas have found a mainstream audience across companies and countries. For example, recently the Netherlands passed the Right to Work From Home legislation which forces employers to consider employee requests to work from home as long as their professions allow it.

From 2015 to 2019, pre-pandemic, Iceland ran four day work week trials across work sectors, in which workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours, and ‘found that not only did productivity remain the same or improve in the majority of workplaces but also people reported feeling less stressed and at risk of burnout, and said their health and work-life balance had improved. They also reported having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores.’ Post-pandemic, the idea of a four day work week has more takers. Countries like Spain, Belgium and others are also taking the plunge. The Right to Disconnect legislation that limits the time that employers can expect employees to be available for work-related communication post work is also finding more takers. Championed by France from a decade back, it now has fresh takers in Italy, Slovakia and others.

Yet these are only some of the steps that need to be taken to truly make the workplace a fair and genuinely healthy space for all. “If you don’t have a mental health policy, if you don’t have a care policy, if you don’t have a creche policy, if you don’t have any one of these things that helps to take some of the emotional care work off people and actively show that the organisation cares and sees what you’re going through”, says Arundhati, “you’re not really putting your money where your mouth is, you can’t say you really care about your employees.” As the Deloitte Women @ Work Report points out, work experience is complicated by one’s life situation and identity: ‘For example, LGBT+ women are more than 10% more likely to say they have been patronised or undermined by managers because of their gender.’ Work policies need to be sensitive to these intersectional needs.

Centering living over work

As we come to the end of our conversation Ashwini points out, “Work is important. It makes one feel useful. It gives you independence, it helps you explore your creativity, your problem solving”, but she adds, “if it doesn’t stay within its limit of just being a part of life, then I think it does go on to squeezing all the goodness away from everything else till you find yourself just sitting in a seat and constantly trying to tick off some to-do’s from a list that is never ending.” The Great Resignation is not just a crisis of work-spaces. It is as much a symptom of a profound crisis of our holistic well-being that asks us that question at the heart of Keynes’ prediction: what happens when we have the economic means to secure for ourselves a life where we are not struggling for survival?

The Great Resignation is not just a crisis of work-spaces. It is as much a symptom of a profound crisis of our holistic well-being that asks us that question at the heart of Keynes’ prediction: what happens when we have the economic means to secure for ourselves a life where we are not struggling for survival?

Serendipitously, in the 1930’s another famous philosopher and intellectual, Bertrand Russell published his book In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays, mulling a similar question. In it he wrote: “Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for the others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.”

Crises are powerful moments for individuals and societies. It is in the churnings of such crucibles, that change occurs. How shall we do things differently in the days, months and years ahead? Will we choose a society where life is bracketed by the constant unthinking pursuit of work or will work return to being one of the elements of a rich well-lived life? These are questions for all of us to consider deeply and collectively.

Arpita Joshi is the co-founder and co-host of the podcast The Curio-city Collective (TCC).