Just two days after the French government’s lockdown went into effect, the bakery in my village outside Paris started rationing baguettes. The limit of five per family per day is still a lot of bread, but it is disconcerting that anyone is trying to stockpile the most perishable of loafs.
I can’t judge them, however. Although I haven’t been panic-buying, I have been panic-working. From home, of course, where we are all now confined. The first day, I decided that this spell of seclusion would be an opportunity to cleanse my inbox of unanswered messages. I then made a list of pending projects, figuring I could cram two new ones into this unexpectedly sick spring. I took part in hastily scheduled Zoom meetings, checked in on a client, and bantered with colleagues in several new WhatsApp groups. I had learned from my research on gig workers that boundaries are key when working from home, so I stuck to a schedule, took breaks for family meals, and helped the kids with their homework. By the time I went to bed at 3 a.m. after bingeing on the news, I was exhausted, edgy and miserable.
I am not the first to struggle with the transition to working from home. Freelancers have told me and my collaborators how tough it can be. “I’ll eat lunch at 4:30. I’m sitting at my desk, working, shaking because I’m so hungry,” said a software designer. “And you just forget, you just lose track of things, because there’s nobody around you.” Gig workers obsess about staying productive too. Their livelihood depends on it. But obsessing can be debilitating. “You feel like, ‘Produce, produce, produce, keep it coming.’ You’re only as good as your latest thing,” one writer admitted, explaining that he had to squelch that inner critic to do his best work.
As job security has waned in many organizations, professional work has increasingly taken on the characteristics of gig work, and salaried workers share some of the anxieties of freelancers, whether we realize it or not. The current crisis has only made this more painfully obvious.
As the coronavirus has spread around the globe, I’ve been hearing similar tales from colleagues and friends, all keen to do the best they can in these stressful circumstances. With our health at stake, jobs on the line, companies struggling, hospitals overwhelmed and markets melting, panic-working might even sound sensible. How could we drop our tools at the very moment when we need all hands on deck?
Psychoanalysts have a name for such frenetic behavior and the magical thinking that goes with it — a manic defense.
Like all defenses, the obsession with staying productive is a source of dubious comfort. It sustains the pretense that if we work hard enough, we can hold onto the world we once knew.
It shields us from feeling powerless in the face of events, but it comes at a high price. It costs us our connection to reality, to our experience, and to others. We become incapable of appraising the situation, acknowledging our feelings about it, and being present to others. We become numb. Eventually, we fall apart because we have tried too hard to keep ourselves together.
In regular circumstances, we condemn managers and workers who push forward with blinders on. We warn them that if they do not free up time for strategic thinking, contemplation, exercise or sleep, their judgment will suffer and they will hurt others. But once a crisis hits, just when judgment matters most, we revert to the belief that feverish activity is a virtue.
Staying productive gives us an illusion of control. We reason (unconsciously) that if we are still moving, it means that we are not dead. And while it might sound a touch dramatic to put it so baldly, thoughts of death are precisely what we often work to avoid.
Sigmund Freud pointed this out long ago, when he described work as a pillar of civilization that brings people together to counter the threats to our existence that nature poses. Much research has confirmed his insight since. We must work even harder not to think about death when it is all around us, in its symbolic as well as in its literal form. Those spiking unemployment figures. Those pictures of military trucks driving coffins out of a Northern Italian town. Better not linger on them, go back to the to-do list, work ourselves into the ground.
The problem with such defenses is that even when they work, they do not help. And we aren’t helping anyone either, when we are working to prove that we are still in control.
And this is a time to focus on helping. To focus on figuring out who needs what to keep going, at work and at home, and how we can offer it. Refining Freud’s early insights on work as a defense against fears of mortality, researchers have found that when we have support and time to reflect, proximity to death makes us not more anxious, isolated and defensive but rather more focused, connected and compassionate. It helps us put our resources to good use.
We may be excused for panic-working to numb ourselves, these days. But we cannot afford it. If you have been doing it, forgive yourself and give yourself a break. Acknowledge that these are extraordinary times. Stop pretending that if you work harder it will be business as usual. Accept disorientation and distress. They are normal. Reach out to friends and colleagues. Focus on work that helps. It won’t only reassure others. It will make you more useful, focused and compassionate. That is, it will make you the kind of person we aspire to be in regular times, and that we need to be in a crisis. That will be enough.
Gianpiero Petriglieri is an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD. A medical doctor and psychiatrist by training, he researches and practices leadership development. Follow him on Twitter at @gpetriglieri.