Always on: The problem with having our work within reach
This past month, I’ve spent more days than not sitting in the same brown wooden chair at my desk, logging on and off Zoom, scrolling through Facebook, chipping away at articles, messaging and texting and emailing and attending more virtual meetings and FaceTime calls before realizing that the sun set hours ago. I haven’t been outside. I’ve snacked here and there. And I feel like I’ve accomplished almost nothing.
Other days, I lay in bed with my phone next to me, dinging with emails, New York Times notifications, campaign volunteers pressing me to donate or phonebank, professors sending Slack messages, news editors asking for photos, friends sending me TikToks, Canvas posting tomorrow’s assignments and I can’t process it all, so I turn my phone off and read none of it. To be fair, I’ve never been the best at taking care of myself — I set reminders on my phone to eat and drink water, I keep a sticky note on my door with each day’s assigned miles to run and my sleep schedule went out the window years ago. But this past month has been my worst yet.
In some ways, this new, pandemic-induced culture of being “always on” has helped. Before this semester, I expected to wait a couple days before hearing back from professors via email. Last Tuesday I sent my photography professor an email at 2:30 a.m., but because of COVID-19, he’s been living in Paris the past six months. We went back and forth until 4:30 a.m. my time, and I had my question answered in time for the 10 a.m. class. I’ve messaged my environmental journalism professors on Slack randomly throughout the day and always heard back within a few minutes. I’ve Zoomed with my professors until 9:15 p.m., discussing journalism and urban farming far too long into their personal time.
I can’t lie — having my questions answered quickly is helpful and of course, efficient. But today alone I’ve texted 16 people or groups, 10 of them related to The Daily. Pre-pandemic, the majority of these conversations would take place in the newsroom during our set production time, and would take a fraction of the mental energy. I’ve messaged three professors, and heard back from two. I shudder to think how many Slack channels, emails and text threads my editors (or professors) are monitoring.
Having such immediate access to people, and expecting such access from everyone, whether academically, professionally or socially, is too harmful.
I spoke with several students about this new normal — over FaceTime, no less. “Since almost everything is remote and online, that’s the most common medium of interaction with others, so I feel like there’s pressure to be online and available to keep our only corridor of communication open. We’re glued to our screens now more than ever,” said Rachel McKimmy, an LSA senior studying in the Program in the Environment.
And of course, we’ve lost our physical work/life boundary. Childhood bedrooms and tiny college dorms rooms have become our offices, libraries and coffee shops. I live farther from campus than normal this year, and can count on one hand the number of times I’ve gone outside my house to do work. We’re working more hours, and spending that time largely alone.
“I'm living with five other girls in a house and we’re all in school or working in some sense. We can't all be working in a living room together, that would be chaos on all of our Zoom calls,” said Maggie Jewett, a graduate student studying biomedical engineering. “So I just stay in my room and I think — I know bringing work and really stressful things into your bedroom is psychologically bad for you. It’s gonna make it harder to sleep or make you resent — I resent my room. It should be like my happy place. But I don’t want to be there because it means I have to be productive, whereas it should be a place of relaxation.”
As a graduate student, part of this life is to be expected. But it’s hurting everyone, not just students. I spoke with Dr. Kirsten Herold, who’s the vice president and chief grievance officer of the Lecturers’ Employee Organization, as well as a faculty member in the School of Public Health. She told me about hearing from “totally overwhelmed” faculty, some of whom are juggling teaching online full-time and ensuring their own kids are learning, too.
“Especially for people with young children, I think it is brutal,” Dr. Herold said. “And I think you have to just say that certain times are sacred. You just have to draw some lines for yourself and really promise yourself that you’re going to stick to them.”
What happens when someone emails with a question, and your computer is just a few feet away? Maggie told me about having a night where she had enough time to sit down and watch an episode of TV before falling asleep, a rarity in her schedule these days. But she ended up working. “It’s right there,” she said. “And why not? I feel like it's a waste of time if I'm not working.”
Pre-pandemic, I spent about 20 hours per week in The Michigan Daily’s newsroom. It’s my favorite place on campus, and I planned on staying until midnight three nights a week. We made a paper, of course, but also ate dinner together, detailed our romantic lives, played euchre, bounced a basketball around and argued over who got the aux. Now I sit in my bed and text other editors hundreds of times throughout the night, as they do the same with other writers, photographers and editors. It’s possible to make a paper this way, but it’s not nearly as fun.
And it’s overwhelming. I feel like I can’t miss a text or email, or something will go wrong. Dr. Herold described this culture of never-ending work, and how quickly it becomes exhausting.
“One thing we’ve done in LEO is we gave all our staff a two-week LEO break this summer. Obviously, if somebody didn’t get their paycheck or their health insurance was cut off, we would’ve been on it. But anything short of an emergency, we just weren’t going to respond to it — ‘Sorry, LEO’s on vacation, we’ll get back to it in two weeks.’ And I think that really helped the staff.”
Along with the new requirement to be available 24/7, we’re simply working more. We’ve lost the typical workday schedule, one that gave our days a semblance of structure. Even before the pandemic, the United States was facing a workaholic crisis. The shift to work from home in March was a beneficial hallelujah for some, an impossibility for others. Those in favor spoke about the flexibility, nonexistent commute and increased family time, but Bloomberg has reported that Americans have actually extended their workday by three hours since the pandemic began. Of course, college students almost never follow a 9-to-5 schedule, but mixing in synchronous and asynchronous classes into an already hectic calendar is making the stress of college worse, on top of all of the distress about living in a pandemic and economic downturn.
For students, losing in-person classes means hours’ more work learning material left behind by Zoom classes.
“I know that certain assignments have changed for my Japanese class, which is already a five-credit class,” Rachel said. “We’re expected to do extra assignments this semester and during the winter semester as well, we do prep quizzes, which are due at 9 a.m. before the lecture, and those never were assigned before. So we have to go cover the material and we get graded on that before class, but that's in addition to all of the normal homework that we would have. So definitely the workload has increased for online classes.”
Maggie echoed the same problem. “I was in a class that had asynchronous lectures as well as synchronous lectures. So, we had to be there virtually for lecture, every Monday, Wednesday for the two hours, in addition to watching recorded lectures outside of class time, which in normal world, when we were in person, we never watched lectures outside of class. Lectures happened in class, homework happened outside of class. So they basically doubled the lecture time every week.”
Some have directed their frustration at their professors, like an anonymous Reddit post on r/uofm. The poster detailed an hourly breakdown of the time it takes them to complete all the work for Math 215, which added up to roughly 44.5 hours per week, for just one class.
“It feels like I'm running a race with no finish in sight, and you professors don't acknowledge or care about the incredible burden you're placing on students who also have to: attend jobs so they can pay rent and eat, participate in other activities and clubs to build resumés, and worry about staying healthy (both in regard to Covid and general physical/mental health),” they wrote. “It feels awful. There's no other way to describe it.”
The post has hundreds of comments, including one from another anonymous user who wrote, “I'm in the exact same boat as you. I do nothing but sit in my room and do coursework ~10 hours a day every day and I still feel like I'm drowning.”
But Rachel didn’t blame her professors for the increased workload. “I don’t resent professors for the changes they’ve made,” she said. “We’re all doing the best we can with this less than optimal situation.”
We talk about burnout as millennials and college students, and even coined a shiny new term: Zoom fatigue. But this pandemic isn’t going anywhere, and there’s no progress on the horizon for how we treat our emotional health and wellbeing in the workplace. For the foreseeable future, our work is invading all the places in our lives it’s not supposed to be meddling in.
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