As of mid-March, things shut down. The NBA shut down. Every music festival was canceled. Indoor dining in many states and cities is suddenly not a thing anymore. Celebrities and royalty started announcing they’d tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus that’s spread across the world just as fast as publishers hit “submit” on well-intended #WFHProductivity tips.
Then, the “when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear” quote circulated, and you could all but feel the blood pressures of the collective hive mind skyrocket.
We did a work-from-home guide ourselves. But in times of historical crisis, what felt like good advice one week (e.g., don’t work from your bed, don’t wear pajamas all day) can actually feel like hurtful policing the next.
To go from regimented work schedules to a new chaos zone of “When do I eat?” is hard enough. No one should be out here trying to crank out plays on top of everything else. (And if you are managing to do so, then you can unofficially crown yourself Lord of the Coronavirus.)
Etiquette is just not what anyone needs right now.
Asking ourselves to “thrive” and “hustle” during an actual pandemic may also show up in physical ways. It can be surface-level stuff like acne and what my mom called “sick hair.” You know how your hair just suddenly starts to look not right when your body feels not right? I can attest to all these things being symptoms of stress, because this has been my corona-related reality for the past few weeks.
“There are so many benefits to working from home, but you can’t utilize those benefits if you are pressuring yourself with pointless timelines, enforcing meaningless cultural rules on your etiquette, and guilting yourself for not being productive, ” says Kallie Tiffau, a musician and tattoo artist from New Orleans.
Making time for taking deep breaths and changing out of sweatpants before the sun sets is all good stuff, but not if you’re doing it to pretend we’re not in a time of necessity and survival.
In the very-on-the-nose-titled NPR article “Best Not to Sweat the Small Stuff, Because It Could Kill You,” Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, said that in her 2014 study, “People who always perceived their daily life to be over-the-top stressful were three times more likely to die over the period of study than people who rolled with the punches and didn’t find daily life very stressful.”
[Say] ‘I’m doing my best’ — and then assume the person on the other end of the camera, no matter what’s going on, is trying too.
The study monitored 1,293 subjects for years and found that men who reported more everyday hassles had a lower mortality rate. “It’s not the number of hassles that does you in, it’s the perception of them,” Aldwin told Oregon State University. “Coping skills are very important.”
While some people worry about whether their dog will unexpectedly trot into the frame with a panty liner in its mouth, others are finding ways to make do without essential setups such as WiFi, work-provided laptops, or even quiet spaces in which to work.
Ultimately, the poster child for this new WFH lifestyle shouldn’t be a young white lady sipping a $12 iced mocha while tapping away at her laptop. It should be closer to someone stressed out of their mind, wondering how they’re going to pay their rent or mortgage let alone find a quiet place to work, take care of sick family members, pay their hospital bills, or survive in a toxic environment.
“I’ve never worked from home before, so this is all strange and new to me,” says Emily Rems, managing editor for BUST magazine, which transferred its entire staff to working from home. “I live in a tiny East Village tenement with no room for a desk or dining table. For 8 hours a day, I’m sinking into the crappy couch and hunching over a TV tray with my laptop on it while my cats take turns crawling all over my keyboard.”
H, who wishes to remain anonymous, is a registered nurse in New Orleans who finds her hectic schedule — as draining as it is — helps a bit. Her environment is far away from the luxury of a WFH situation. She works 6 consecutive days and then gets 12 off.
“Work is endlessly busy,” H says. “But going to work (even in a scary place like the hospital) can temporarily distract me from thinking about COVID-19, crazy as that sounds. Whether it’s charting at a computer or answering a call bell, those are moments where I’m engaged with meaningful tasks and not just frantically reading about COVID-19 on my phone. I need that.”
But work is not a foolproof coping mechanism for pandemic-related anxiety and stress. Even during her time off, H finds very little rest at home.
“Last week I went on Xanax for the first time because I was completely crippled by anxiety,” she says. “I went up on my antidepressants too. So now I am taking more psychotropic medications than I ever have in my life, and I still have moments that are extremely overwhelming.”
We’re all doing our best right now, even if we’re not doing much at all.
“The mental part is the hardest,” Rems also admits. “I have the news on low all day because I’m so scared and I want to always be informed. But admittedly, my nerves are frayed while I’m trying to stay upbeat over email. I also feel like kind of an asshole pestering freelancers about their late drafts while it feels like the world is ending.
“But I keep reminding myself that keeping cherished institutions like BUST alive through really difficult times is a way I can help folks stay somewhat comforted and entertained while we all ride out this long quarantine together.”
H still tries to decompress at home when she can. She enjoys sitting in her courtyard, where her body can unpack and process. “It’s quieter than usual and helps me forget about what is happening beyond our fence.”
In 2018, less than 30 percent of American workers could or did work from home. That number may have gotten just a tad bigger during all this, but still, those who do get to self-isolate while making income are in the lucky minority.
As stay-at-home orders go into effect, “nonessential” businesses close, and a vast percentage of the population suffers severe, unexpected losses of income, it becomes clear who and what keeps our systems functioning — and most aren’t work-from-home gigs. Most people making minimum wage are either in the epicenter of the pandemic or working in high risk areas (due to foot traffic) while being expected to manage customers’ anxieties.
“All of us (not cops) are contributing to society in our own ways,” says Tiffau. “I don’t believe there’s a hierarchy; I believe people have different skills. Obviously, garbage men should be millionaires. I hope people realize through this crisis who the true essential workers are and what their value is.”
A recent New York Times article reported that Louisiana is experiencing the fastest growth of COVID-19 cases in the world, with more than 2,300 reported as of March 26, 2020. And the United States had a record 3.3 million applications for unemployment benefits in the last week of March.
“I imagine if you’re out there having trouble coping with your new life working from home, you can at least be thankful that your time isn’t spent calling your reps in Congress, desperately seeking government engagement to address your needs as a furloughed worker who doesn’t have enough money in their account to pay their rent next week,” says Mason Hereford, New Orleans chef and owner of the wildly popular eateries Turkey and the Wolf and Molly’s Rise and Shine.
He and his staff tried to switch to takeout only for their restaurants but ultimately decided it would be safer for everyone if they shut down completely until things get better. “That’s the life of a hospitality industry professional right now,” he says.
It’s also reality of people in creative industries, like musicians, show bookers, and makeup artists. These people are left with the added stress of re-strategizing their entire business through online classes and gift cards, but not all these pivots work to pay the bills.
“I’m happy to teach people how to do the best skin care or specific application techniques, but the vast majority of clients want skilled hands doing the work for them. There is no responsible, ethical way to do that right now,” says Kate, a makeup artist from Brooklyn who asked that we not use her full name.
“If I don’t show up, I don’t get paid,” she says. “Most service industry jobs don’t afford workers the ability to self-isolate. Anything that requires touch, that can’t be done from home.”
In an interview with the Washington Post, psychologist Susan David talked about “leakage,” the idea that not thinking about something causes it to come back amplified. In this case, insisting on rolling with the punches just because others have it worse may result in more unnecessary stress during this nightmare.
So, as we try to maintain whatever new normalcy we can patch together, use this daily mantra: “I’m doing my best.” And assume the person on the other end of the camera, no matter what’s going on, is trying too.
We’re all doing our best right now, even if we’re not doing much at all. Let’s work together to keep each other sane, safe, fed, and — if the world allows — happy.
Kelly McClure is a writer who has written for NY Magazine, GQ, The Hairpin, Rolling Stone, and more. Find more of her work here.