The reality of “woming”
In 2019, in collaboration with a number of colleagues at the University of Nottingham, I co-authored Florence Nightingale at Home, an exploration of how modern nursing’s founder achieved many of her greatest feats while bedridden. Little did any of us imagine that less than a year later, thanks to COVID-19, the reality of working from home would be experienced by millions.
As the twists and turns of the pandemic have unfolded, many employees have been advised to abandon their workplaces, encouraged to return and then urged to stay away again. Amid the ongoing chaos, some companies have welcomed what they see as the end of “presenteeism” and the advent of unprecedented flexibility.
One school of thought is that a new normal has already been established. Whatever happens now, say working from home’s proponents, many people have long fantasised about this sort of “freedom” and won’t want to go back to how things used to be now that their dreams have come true.
I’m not convinced. At least for some of us, this could be a classic illustration of the old axiom that you should be careful what you wish for.
Working from home – or “woming”, as we might call it – may well have felt novel and refreshing at first, but it could yet prove considerably less appealing over the longer term. The potentially damaging impact on our fundamental notions of humanity and social cohesion shouldn’t be underestimated.
A lesson from the Lady of the Lamp
We wrote Florence Nightingale at Home to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the Lady of the Lamp’s birth. We never imagined that it would have additional relevance in light of a global pandemic and the extraordinary, all-pervading phenomenon of lockdown.
Our research drew on the first analysis of all 16 volumes of Nightingale’s writings. We were also granted unique access to her family letters, many of them previously unpublished and containing novel insights into her life and ideas.
Most people are aware that Nightingale oversaw a raft of major social reforms. These included innovations in public health and the emergence of proper, trained nursing. What’s much less widely known is that she managed all this from a bed or a chaise longue, having been struck down with brucellosis – a condition bringing chronic pain and fatigue – while caring for soldiers during the Crimean War.
This seems to suggest that it’s eminently possible to do amazing things while woming – and it surely is for many individuals. But it may be worth noting that Nightingale was also prone to bouts of severe depression, alternating between periods of intense creativity and spells during which she saw herself as a worthless failure. The reality of working from home is not always a positive experience.
Did her confinement exacerbate these mood swings? It’s extremely unlikely to have helped. Having spent several months in isolation myself in the wake of the UK’s first lockdown announcement, I don’t doubt for an instant that home can just as easily resemble a prison as it can a sanctuary.
From confinement to cabin fever
While I’ve been locked down in the UK, my son, Jamie Orion Crawford, has been locked down in Canada, where he works as a data analyst. Together, reflecting on our experiences, we’ve used our time to write Cabin Fever: Surviving Lockdown in the Coronavirus Pandemic. Our very simple conclusion: woming isn’t for everyone.
Some womers might be fortunate over the longer term. A relentless routine of limited human interaction could leave them with nothing worse than eyestrain – a product of persistent screen-gazing, Zooming and Teaming. But others may risk serious mental and even physical decline.
The changing of the seasons will provide an acid test for many. There’s a big difference between being able to step away from your computer and into a sun-drenched garden, as was the case in the early months of the pandemic, and having no such means of temporary escape, as is the case during winter.
Yet it’s the debilitating absence of genuine engagement that’s likely to exact the heaviest toll. Many people will increasingly miss the banter, the gossip, colleagues, collaboration, companionship, a basic sense of belonging and numerous other dynamics that can stem only from being a member of a real – as opposed to a virtual – team.
Of course, all this is the kind of stuff that might have occasionally – or even consistently – annoyed us during our working lives as we once knew them. Like so many things, though, it’s also the kind of stuff that we tend not to truly appreciate until it’s gone.
Keeping sight of our humanity
Given all the above, businesses must recognise that woming could represent a very dangerous shift. While flexibility is wonderful, employees shouldn’t be cast adrift on a grey sea of professional loneliness. There has to be choice because the reality of working from home, might suit some but won’t suit others.
Companies could perhaps be forgiven for seizing on the obvious bottom-line advantages of ridding themselves of real estate and rent. But they certainly couldn’t be forgiven for condemning substantial swathes of their workforce to what might turn out to be a desolate, unfulfilling, miserable existence.
Granted, many studies have concluded that woming makes the average worker happier and more productive. But such inferences should be taken with a pinch of salt today. The challenge is to remain happy and productive, and only time will tell if this is a reasonable expectation.
Ultimately, maybe the key lesson for firms and employees alike is that “freedom” is what you make it. There might well be something brilliant about leaving behind a mind-numbing commute and the age-old strictures of a nine-to-five routine, but we should all beware the prospect of slipping into another form of soul-sapping monotony.
So if woming really is your future – whether by choice or decree – remember what it means to be human. Take notice of the reality of working from home, and create positive interventions. Break up the day. Exercise. Read. Write. Listen to music. Sing. Such as is possible, converse and interact. One way or another, do all that you can to keep stress, boredom and solitude at bay. Above all, please don’t let your own home become somewhere that you hate – because that’s a new normal that few could ever hope to endure.
Find out more about Paul’s research and writings about the life of Florence Nightingale
Get Paul’s book which he co-authored with his son “Cabin Fever: Surviving Lockdown In the Coronavirus Pandemic” here
For more information about Paul, scroll down to view his bio
Paul Crawford became the world’s first Professor of Health Humanities in 2008. He is currently Director of the Centre for Social Futures at the University of Nottingham’s Institute of Mental Health. The author of more than a dozen books, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and the Royal Society for Public Health and the recipient of a Lord Dearing Award for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.