Work-from-Home Burnout is Real But I’ll Take That Any Day Over Pandemic Paranoia


Work-from-Home Burnout is Real But I’ll Take That Any Day Over Pandemic Paranoia

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

It’s 9 am. My balcony is filled with dried laundry from two days ago, yet to be picked up and folded. No one bothers to pick it up unless absolutely necessary – besides, ironing clothes is a thing of the past. It’s been two months since the lockdown started.

As I sip my morning tea, I look at a crow perched atop a wire. The crow looks at me. My cat rubs his fur against my knees and snuggles up, but then the crow distracts him too. He climbs the balcony railing, aiming a jump, hoping to grab the crow. He is a crafty cat, ambitious, yet blissfully unaware of the fall from the balcony. I do a balancing act, grabbing the cat, putting a halt to his suicidal tendencies, and keeping my steaming tea from spilling over.

This little scene is repeated every morning, until the comforting lull of work distracts me. After 9 am, the hour is marked by the afternoon, when I make lunch. Then, it’s directly 7 pm. There’s no in between, no real distractions, nothing to indicate when morning turns into noon turns into night. I wish there were more distractions in my life than the cat.

There’s a certainty to my morning routine – I know that it will happen anyway, and if I don’t make active efforts to change it, it won’t budge. Because most of my day later on is unpredictable. And I find some comfort in that unpredictability because I have never done just one thing at a time.

There are no real distractions, nothing to indicate when morning turns into noon turns into night.

I’d always imagined that once I had ample time on hand, I’d soar high, my creative juices would flow non-stop. And the non-availability of that time was the only hurdle to achieving greater things in life. For starters, I thought I’d devour more than half of my looming bookshelf. I still have a battered old copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World sitting beside me on my bed, yet unopened. This lockdown is the perfect time to read that classic, a slim volume I’d probably complete in three long sittings. But the highly insanely utopic setting, bordering on dystopia, forces me to think about the times we’re actually living in. So I close the book and try reading Gilead, but my eyes glaze over the pages soon.

And so, I seek refuge in work. To not think of all the other things I am not doing. To not think of the times we’re living in.

While many people have dedicated this lockdown to finding new skills everyday, I worship at the altar of Gmail and make a daily sacrifice to Google Hangout. And frankly, I don’t mind. Work is an escape, because the looming spectre of the pandemic leaves me breathless. Because if I am not thinking about work, then I am thinking whether I have adequately sanitised every packet of dal and spices, every utensil, every vegetable in my household. Whether my roommate is covering his face with his elbows while sneezing, and how often I should wash my face-mask. I’d take work anxiety any day over the anticipation of a fever, or a dry cough.

Before lunch there’s almost always a client call, always a last-minute change in brief, always a script narration where four people are speaking at the same time, at least one is laughing, and there’s a mynah chirping in someone’s background.  But perhaps four years of engineering college with the last-minute race to the lecture halls, and five years of subsequent corporate chaos has made me immune to any uncertainty that work throws at me. At this point, I almost revel in it.

In the afternoon my cat comes and snuggles beside me. Soon he gets distracted and finds something else to snuggle against, like an airbag inside my cupboard. I reach over to give him a pet on his head but my phone vibrates with an update from a news app. The news is always a variation of “new Covid cases emerging in hotspots”, “Ways to know if a cough is a Covid cough”, and “lack of beds leave patients scrambling for options”. I open click on the clickbait headline, hoping to almighty God that the actual contents of the news aren’t that alarming. But if I had a grain of sand for all the things I have hoped for, I’d remodel Juhu Beach. It’s heartbreaking, all this hopelessness around.

I seek refuge in work. To not think of all the other things I am not doing and the times we’re living in.

I finish reading and go back to work. A script needs my urgent attention. But attention is also in short supply, and so I look for something else… a prior deliverable I might have missed, a script I haven’t read, client calls to hop on to. I eventually find something. I find my fly, my crow, my insect, much like my cat does. Work is saving me from going bonkers, because at least the chaos of work follows a discipline. Grief, heartbreak, the pandemic – these things aren’t disciplined. When life doesn’t give you enough wins, you take work wins and cherish them. At first, work was a distraction. Now, it’s a saviour. When there is so much to get done, facing the pandemic seems like a cakewalk.

I often think it’s not healthy, marinating in this chaos. There’s a real, sharp sword named “Burnout” hanging near my neck. All my efforts go into keeping that at bay, and parrying with a sword of my own — dogged persistence. Perhaps, sometime in the future, I’ll find a healthier alternative. But for now, I make this compromise, because I have to keep moving. The pandemic is everyone’s worst nightmare come to life, and I feel the only way out is through. And so, I keep doing things to keep me afloat.

It’s night again. I have to prepare dinner. The chaos of work has subsided, for now, and a new, domestic kind of chaos presents itself. There are no onions and no tomatoes. My cat has found a door to some different cat universe beneath my washing machine. He is distracted. I am distracted by the rush to come up with a quick dinner which would satiate the appetite of four people. We have some yogurt and some besan. Kadhi chawal will be perfect.

I go to work again. And I know I will win.