Redefining my relationship with work: A mid-pandemic retrospective

If I dislike work so much, why do I want to be there? Forced time off gave me the answer.

I cannot name a single friend or acquaintance who has not had their job impacted by COVID-19. Some had changes to hours, worked from home, had to take time off after becoming close contacts, or lost their job altogether. Through these changes, many of us have been forced to reinterpret our relationship with our employment.

I’ve worked two jobs throughout the pandemic and experienced a sizeable increase in hours at both, mainly due to an uptake in online orders and covering shifts for those with COVID. Especially since the June-October lockdown, my work has defined me.

My first job reopened as the Omicron variant was taking off. At this point, I was working 6-7 day weeks across both of my jobs whilst also juggling uni. A co-worker eventually tested positive and lo and behold, I was declared a close contact. This was followed by a three-hour wait at the RPA testing clinic and an agonising seven-day wait on my results.

Thankfully, the long workweeks meant I had enough money to tide me over while I waited for my results. Where a regular week would be filled with work, this one felt devoid of purpose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this meant I spent a lot of time reflecting on who I am. 

It’s not often you get an entire week away from work, and to my horror, I realised that I had no idea how to occupy my time outside of it. 

So, I sat and waited. The first couple of days were okay; I read a lot, caught up on much-needed sleep, cleaned the kitchen twice, cooked, all the usual stuff. But by the time Monday rolled around, I was aching to be somewhere where things needed to get done, where I could be productive.

I called up each of my jobs and told them that I knew I was negative because of a friend in the healthcare system who could confirm my result. Despite my desperate pleas, I couldn’t go back without an official result.

I didn’t find either job fulfilling then, and I still feel that way now. The work is tedious and largely thankless but needed to get done by someone. Whether or not I was at work, I was unfulfilled. I suppose the only difference was that when I was working, at least I was paid to feel that way. That’s the catch-22. 

Unfortunately, late capitalism demands that we cling to our unfulfilling and thankless jobs even if we hate them because we are constantly reminded of how replaceable we are. 

At a moment’s notice, I could be deemed no longer useful, no longer profitable, and have my position replaced by someone who is even more desperate for work than I am. Failing to make rent is dire but attaching your sense of purpose to precarious employment is insidious.

Each of the seven days I was out of work, I was missing a rostered shift, and every day I became more terrified of how unprofitable I was to each of my employers. Each night I clung to the hope I would wake up to the text from RPA. I needed to be useful again. In a time where stable employment feels unattainable, and every choice about how to earn an income feels like a lose-lose situation, it’s imperative that we seek out ways to define ourselves beyond our work.

I have taken up cooking and rekindled my love for art. It doesn’t have to be big – you don’t need to be the next Gordon Ramsay or Michelangelo while off the clock, but it must be enough to know that at the very core of your being, you are so much more than the profit you can generate.

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