Everyone in Texas seems to be heading back into the office this summer. Our governor has forbidden schools, businesses, and local governments from imposing public health requirements in what seems to be a desperate bid to create a sense of “pre-pandemic normalcy.” This is, news analysts suggest, part of a broad campaign to steal business investment away from other states. In a way, that makes sense; Texas’s government has been obsessed recently with branding the state as a “corporate paradise” with its low tax rates, low regulations, and cheap cost of living.
Meanwhile, the new Delta Variant of everybody’s pal COVID-19 is running amok through Texas’s unvaccinated population which – like the premise of a schlocky horror movie – includes children too young to get vaccinated right as the new school year kicks off. I’ve listened to teachers warn that the state’s refusal to allow schools to demand mandatory mask wear is going to create “super spreader” events where none need exist. The desperate yearning to “get back to normal” appears to be accelerating towards a head-on collision with “indifferent reality.”
It’s an understatement to say that I’m horrified by all this. That said, the inevitable explosion of new infections, overloaded ICU wards, and preventable deaths is provoking an additional, downstream, entirely predictable personal problem: I just can’t think anymore.
I wrote about the long-term degradation of focus and morale caused by pandemic life back in February to mark the one-year anniversary of my working 100% remote. My aside in the middle of the piece still resonates:
“It’s gotten to the point where just writing these weekly columns has become a challenge in and of itself. Even when I have the free time to write, a quiet house, and a strong choice of topics, I’ll often require double or even triple the time and attention as I used to need to generate a mediocre first draft. … I might have to spend a week – on and off – finishing a piece that would have only taken 2-3 hours on a good day back in 2019. Bear in mind, this is something that I enjoy doing. … and it, too, has become a grind.”
By way of a status update, I can confidently say that this problem has gotten 100% worse since February. I’ve met my publication schedule but only barely. It’s not because of procrastination. As soon as I submit a column to my editor, I immediately open a new document and start working on the next one. That used to work … now, not so much. Even with my huge list of column ideas that I’ve squirrelled away over the last ten years, it’s an effort to get the words to come. I feel like my thoughts are trying to swim through a flood of molasses. Today was no exception. I started at this blank Word document for two hours fumbling for a topic I could make sense of before I got the first words down.
This isn’t just a writer’s block issue. Everything takes more effort these days. I used to habitually consume our local newspaper over breakfast. Now, I let the papers stack up, untouched. During the week, I drag my cereal bowl to my office and get straight to (remote) work, leaving the newspapers alone in the kitchen until the weekend when forcing my way through them in chronological order gives me an excuse to put off more demanding tasks.
What little focus I have I save for work because people there depend on me. That’s not meant to be a brag; simply an admission of how I prioritize what limited mental and emotional resources I have left. I feel like an old lorry, long overdue for maintenance, carrying too much cargo and with not nearly enough petrol in the tank, trying to “I-think-I-can” my way up a steep hill.
As I said in February, I’m not trying to trawl for sympathy by admitting this. Quite the opposite: I want to help make it okay for people to talk about it when the incessant, corrosive effect of pandemic stress interferes with life. Especially with work life. Most of us are worn out, and the conditions that got us this way haven’t gone away.
In all the exuberant posturing from our politicians about “getting back to normal,” I’ve heard very few people discuss the long-term ramifications of living and pretending to function under this unremitting barrage of existential dread. Sure, it would be great for the world to somehow “beat” SARS CoV-2 once and for all … but we haven’t. Some of us “armoured up” against the threat but we’re in no way “immune” to it. Meanwhile, the enemy has gotten stronger right as our populations seem to have given up the fight against it.
Here in Texas, we’re sending our unvaccinated kids back to school in a few weeks without masks as if we’re daring COVID-19 to hit us with its best punch. Those unvaccinated kids are going to come home to hug their unvaccinated parents who then come to work at the office the next day, operating under the laughable false notion that there’s no more public health threat to worry about. We know what happens next. We’ve known what happens for a year and a half.
That grim foreknowledge, then, takes our existing accumulation of personal and professional stress and adds an exponent to it. “Oh, you thought you were under significant pressure last year? Let’s see how you like it when we square that, mate!” In the immortal words of Internet meme culture, DO NOT WANT.
If you are feeling ground down right now and aren’t sure how you’re going to cope come Autumn when the proverbial chickens come home to gasp their last breaths on a shared ventilator, I empathize. 2021 is shaping up to be a “what the *#&$ were they thinking?” sidebar in history books. It’s going to be a rough ride, assuming we survive it.
If, however, you’re not feeling particularly stressed by all this, I have a request: please understand that even though you aren’t worried, many of your co-workers are. Demanding that your bosses, stakeholders, and subordinates perform at the same level of focus, output, and endurance as they performed in 2019 is not only unrealistic, it’s abusive. Learn to empathize. Change your processes and expectations to give people the buffer they need to achieve their goals based on the limited emotional and intellectual resources they have left. If you don’t, they’re going to leave you.
When you can’t fix the world, sometimes the only thing you can do is to walk away from the people who can’t or won’t acknowledge that it’s broken. It’s a matter of survival. Eventually, we all reach a point where there’s just no more fuel in the metaphorical tank.
This column, for example, probably should be twice as long thanks to quotes from psychologists, epidemiologists, and public health specialists. I should be linking to articles that substantiate my arguments. Maybe interview an expert who’s more credible than a smart aleck with a cowboy hat. That extra effort would certainly make this article stronger … but I just don’t have the reserves for it. It’s taken me three hours to force out 1,500 semi-coherent words and now I’m pretty much done for the day.
Monday’s entirely too close, and I need to preserve what little focus I can for tomorrow’s inbox. I have more obligations to keep than I can generate the energy for each morning. I can’t imagine what state I’ll be in come next February.