For the first time in six months, I felt I had a place in the world again.
Six long months of uncertainty, of worry, or wondering if I would ever be needed in the ways that I was previously pre Covid. Not that we are post Covid at the moment, but we are beginning, in my professional field, to nudge our way into alternative ways of working, that, whilst very challenging for someone in their last decade of work, offer alternatives to the nothingness we feared back in March.
Over those six months, I have learned to value other ways of being, alternative modes of supporting others, different ways of nurturing and tending to those who need it. I think I became a more tolerant parent, I certainly learned to care for the garden like never before, and to cook some different meals. I even tried my hand at reading to children over the airwaves, (surprisingly rewarding) and making my own clothes (predictably shambolic) but we don’t spend a lifetime honing our own unique skills to abandoned them, and immediately expect to develop new ones overnight. I went through a grieving process at the thought of the premature loss of my career. And coupled with the grieving process that many women secretly feel at this time of their life, for their lost fertility, their children growing up and leaving home, it all felt a bit much at times.
So what brought me back, within an hour, one sunny weekday evening towards the end of August?
A return to my professional life. Albeit fleeting, and perhaps not to be repeated for weeks or even months, the invitation to act as panellist on a webinar for junior doctors, has radically restored my faith not just in me but in my professional world and the wider world at large. There is hope; maybe this is not the end.
Much research into the benefits of working go beyond the obvious such as financial security, or future choices. The psychological gains usually relate to three core factors. One is the social nature of belonging to a team or a group. Even introverts, who seek overt social contact less than extraverts do, relish the opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves. Humans have survived over time by being social (which is different to being sociable) and there is strength in numbers. The sense of achievement and reward of being part of a team that collectively achieves something is arguable greater than the feeling we get from individual reward. It says something about us that we can and do work with others, that we fit into a larger entity than ourselves. It links us with society, with the world, in ways we cannot be linked on our own.
The second core benefit from working relates to our identity. We go though our lives grappling with the big question of who we are. For many people, we are what we do. We don’t say, “I treat diseases,” or “I care for sick people,” or “I help children to read,” when asked about our jobs. We say “I am:” “ I am a doctor;” “ I am a nurse;” “I am a teacher.” Most often we enter a profession because we are attracted to the values it espouses, the people we meet in it. We feel we belong. Over my career I have asked doctors why they chose the specialty they chose, and much of the time it was because they felt they “fitted” there. They saw people like themselves, with the same character traits, preferences and beliefs. As we grow within our fields we gain experience and with it expertise. And that endorses the identity we have chosen for ourselves. We become our job. Part of the reason for the moral injury pandemic also sweeping our globe is that some of our jobs have changed beyond recognition since we began them, and the values we were so attracted to have all but gone. Being forced to adopt contradictory values and practices causes us real psychological hurt. It compromises our identity, says we are no longer who we thought we were.
The third benefit, even for those who do not necessarily work directly in the so called helping professions, relates to making a difference. We know we live in a less than ideal world, and so being able to see that we have made something easier or more enjoyable for someone else gives us a big boost. Even as a waitress, in my student years, I took great pride in ensuring that my customers had the best time they could. That meant being attentive to their service needs, but it also meant understanding what they wanted from me. If they wanted to chat, or joke, or have no social contact, I would do my best to ensure that happened. My job was to take their order and bring their food but also to make sure they had an experience that enhanced their day. In my role now, the knowledge that I may have helped one more person to make a tough decision, or to handle a difficult relationship, or to feel better about their own practice, is enough to make me satisfied, to bring me the kind of fulfilment I suspect we all seek from our work.
Covid lockdown and the absence of work for six months left me washed up. Who was I? Where did I belong? What use was I now?
The inclusion in a small team of like minded colleagues, which invited me to use my expertise, and to make a small difference, in conjunction with my panellists, gave me the boost I needed. What worries me about the direction of travel in our society is that we see our society hurtling towards a future when fewer people do more and more of the work, so that we are either exhausted, burned out and morally injured, or we are workless, with no sense of identity or direction. Over the coming winter I suspect we will see these two poles in action as another partial or full lockdown will see some sections of the workforce pushed beyond their limits and others cast adrift again. This cannot be a template worth sustaining outside of pandemic lockdowns. Work is good for everyone and nobody should be excluded from such a fundamental human necessity.
It feels right to work. Let’s give everyone that right.