What the pandemic has taught us about work

The COVID-19 pandemic has been enormously disruptive. Personal freedom has been curtailed with many cities imposing travel restrictions locally and the ongoing limits on interstate and international travel. Science has been moved from the back room or basement into the spotlight as the world endeavoured to first understand the SARS-Cov-2 virus, and then create a vaccine within a year. All these, and many more, changes have been disruptive. But I want, for a moment, to focus on how work has changed.

Work is no longer a place we go. It has become a thing we do. Faced with limits in movement that stopped many from going home – there are still tens of thousands of Australians who are unable to return home, seeing loved ones, enjoying live entertainment and exercising we suddenly realised that work is not quite as impact as we all thought. While the focus of work for most people is to earn money to fund other activities, work has also become a way we define ourselves.

Our jobs have become how many people define themselves. At every social gathering, during the small talk part of the evening, discussion inevitably turns to the question of “What do you do?”. Interestingly, many people answer with “I’m a …”. They don’t say “I take amazing photographs of people during their happiest days”. They say “I’m a photographer”.

But COVID-19 changed things. Instead of the cashiers and shelf-stackers at your local supermarket being seen to have entry level or low-level jobs, they were suddenly elevated to essential workers. Frontline healthcare were acknowledged, rightfully so, as heroes. And, for many of the rest of us, we were thrust into working from home. And we learned something important.

Work is something we do – not a place we go to. And, with so many people having to balance home schooling, realising that seeing friends and family is critical and that physical and mental health can be fragile there has been a shift in priorities. Suddenly, people see work as something that can be shifted to accomodate life rather than life fitting in around work.

If we have learned anything over the last year – it’s that work is not the most important thing in our lives. It’s not unimportant – but its place in the list of life’s priorities has shifted.