Over Sunday brunch I finally admitted to a friend that I was not doing OK.
And then he admitted back to me that neither was he.
The most common question that friends and acquaintances have asked each other over the last 9 months has been – how are you doing? How is everything going?
And we all put on a brave face and mechanically answer – it’s all good. We are staying indoors and staying safe. Not taking any chances. We have been lucky to not have fallen sick.
But we are all lying.
This pandemic has taken a real toll – 67M cases, 1.54M deaths and millions of people who will suffer from the after-effects of battling this disease. Not to speak of the economic turmoil and job loss. But we haven’t even begun to fathom what this pandemic has done to our collective mental health.
We are social animals. And we have created structures over millennia to support the way we live our lives. These structures have crumbled in the last 9 months. From our time as hunter-gatherers to our time in the modern concrete jungles, we depended on the following structures:
(a) Families – joint/ nuclear with extended support (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins)
(b) Schools – whose primary job was to look after our kids while we were away at work or completing our housework and educate them while they were at it
(c) Friends – to fraternize and share our joys and sorrows
For working-parents, all these three structures have fallen apart in one way or the other. The extended support structure of families has disappeared for many. Online classes require you to sit with your kids and take up a lot of mental bandwidth and time. And hanging out over Zoom is not the same as hanging out at a pub with friends. As a society, we will see families struggling and dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic for many years to come.
If you ever wanted to experience life on a submarine or a space station – well, now you have. A group of people are trapped in close quarters. They love each other but they all need their space. Nerves are frayed, tempers are high, mental health is in the pits. We are all caught in a strange Stockholm Syndrome (we are the captors and the captives). Meditation and counselling (family and marriage) are both the need of the hour. It is foolish to not seek help.
Online education is a mess. Putting a bunch of kids in front of laptops does not replace classrooms. The tools are failing the teachers and the students. (a) Never have teachers faced greater parental scrutiny (b) and never have kids been under more unnecessary pressure.
A lot of people are jumping on to the “Remote Work” bandwagon. What we have been experiencing is not remote work. It is “work from home” – and the two are not the same. Remote work is not just about turning a room/ a desk at home into a workstation. It is about the ability to do your best most productive and collaborative work from anywhere you choose to. You don’t need to physically go to an office space shared with other colleagues (you can however choose to be in an office space of your own).
People who make this work, change all the parameters around them to fit this construct. They still have a social life, their kids still go to school (which gives them uninterrupted time and space at home) and they still have all the other support structures in place.
Zoom and Slack are terrible tools for the situation we are in. I am hoping that product builders around the world are really creating the right kind of collaboration and communication tools we need. There is a lot of work that needs to be done here.
The physical separation of office and home was critical for a lot of people. You pack up for the day and get into your car/ cab, listen to the radio or podcasts and mentally give yourself the freedom to switch off from work. This “me time” was critical for a lot of people. We don’t have this anymore. Work is always 10 seconds away – you just need to flip open your laptop screen. People need to find the right set of rituals for themselves to switch on/off from work.
So What Do We Do
1. It is time to put down our personal shields and admit that everything is not OK
2. Seeking help is important
3. Encouraging friends to seek help is equally important
4. Forgiving yourself and your loved ones is critical
5. Build new rituals, experiment with different ways of working – find out what works for you