Family and Self in a Work-from-Home World

As someone who has been working from home full time for several years, the current conversation around remote work in the time of COVID-19 has fascinated me.

Now, as the pandemic stretches out and companies continue to keep their offices closed, conversations are turning to whether the work-from-home shift is a permanent change.

I’m all for it. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest productivity is just as good—if not better—for employees who work at home, so the hard business data seems to support it also.

But there is a cost. Even if they’re more productive, not everyone is happier at home.

Lowly Workers

There is an immense amount of strain on people in the working world right now. Between adjusting to a new office environment, managing the stress of an uncertain economy, feeling fearful for personal and public health, and under pressure to keep productivity high in order to protect their job security and tackle pandemic projects they never anticipated—it’s a lot. For all of us.

We are all in the unfortunate position of redefining work-life balance—and fighting for what matters most when we’re expected to give a lot more than we have in our mental and emotional reserves.

Some companies are taking this burden on their people seriously and trying to minimize their contribution to it by being transparent with and supportive of their workforce.

Unfortunately, not all companies are providing the same support. I know people who’ve heard little to nothing from their leaders about what the months—even weeks—ahead will look like in terms of working locations, travel policies, job security, and company health.

There is also an unsettling trend of increased surveillance on workers who are logging on at home—a belittling overreach, and a downright unethical privacy violation to boot.

Whether it’s mistrust, mistreatment, or maladjustment, a lot of working adults are just feeling less human when it comes to their careers lately. It’s hard to feel like a unique person of worth when your stability—economic and emotional—depends on some numbers on a spreadsheet.

Now, add in an overdose of collapsing self-worth. Between the unrelenting demands placed on us in a consumerist society, and the increased tendency of people—especially young people—to hinge their self-image on their work, so many of our neighbors are feeling their emotional foundations collapse.

This tendency is known as “workism,” and it’s a plague all its own. COVID-19 has merely brought its effects to the forefront. Why do so many of us place all our self-worth on our careers?

There is an abundance of scientific evidence that the human mind is predisposed to religiosity. (Of course, to people of faith, this makes sense: we were created with an inherent love for and desire to seek out our Creator.) Psychologists, neuroscientists, sociologists, and more see a common desire to belong, understand our place in the universe, and work toward a greater good.

Absent an upbringing or personal perspective steeped in faith, many of us find this sense of meaning elsewhere. Sometimes it’s in our relationships. Very often, it’s in our work. “What you do is who you are” becomes a natural assumption when no one teaches you that “You are who you were created to be, regardless of what you do.”

In times of plenty, the former definition of self is a valuable one. We feel productive and effective, confident and admirable. But in times of want, if your identify is dependent on your output, it’s hard to see your worth when you’re not even “doing enough” to get by.

Lonely Homes

Worse than fiscal fears, and just as devastating as crumbling self-worth, is the pervasive sense of loneliness reported by many work-from-home professionals in the COVID-19 economy.

Just as so many of us have our identities tied up in our work, we have our social support systems there, too. When you hold yourself to high standards of “hustle,” an increasing majority of your time is spent at work. Ultimately, the people you speak to and connect with most are at the office.

Today’s young adults are getting married at later ages. They’re starting families later, too. And, around the world, more and more people are living alone.

So where else are we finding community, if not at work? And even if your network of friends extends beyond the office, it’s not exactly easy to hang out while social distancing effects remain in place all around us.

Of course this is a recipe for loneliness. Who wouldn’t be lonely if they suddenly found themselves alone, 24 hours a day, without the freedom or safety required to connect with anyone outside their household?

Again, intensive economic demand and unaccommodating workplaces make it increasingly difficult to pursue family life for many young adults in the 21st century. It’s a benefit to your employer if you stake your identity and your community within their four walls, isn’t it? Then you never want to leave.

But a move away from family values has also contributed to this shift:

Whatever the reason (and, to be clear, there certainly are plenty of legitimate reasons to delay marriage or having children—I’m not suggesting everyone get married at 18 and start having babies immediately), having a family later in life can mean years of living literally or figuratively alone. And while independence is a good thing, isolation is not.

Balance: The Ultimate Question

At any stage in life, there’s the struggle to find balance—between work and school, school and socialization, work and family, family and self. How you find it and what that balance ultimately looks requires deeply personal reflection and adjustment, which no one else can dictate for you.

But all of us deserve the freedom to find it. Our rights are to life, liberty, and property—and the pursuit of happiness.

This is a defining moment for the next several decades when it comes to our political, social, and economic culture. I hope it swings more toward the human side of the spectrum than the commercial.

Saint Joseph the Worker, pray for us.

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