It has been a little over a year since we all departed for spring break, oblivious to the never-ending ordeal of remote work that was to come. For those whose livelihoods now consist of consecutive virtual meetings from their bedroom, “Zoom burnout” is a melancholic reality. It’s an unsustainable way to live: not merely “working from home,” but rather “living at work.”
Since last March, working adults sequestered within their homes have bemoaned the deterioration of work-life balance. Brewing an early morning coffee now seamlessly bleeds into the day’s first conference call. The end-of-day 5 p.m. delineation between work and personal life also has begun to deteriorate. One survey showed that nearly 70 percent of remote-workers report working weekends now. The mere act of “stepping away from work” has become arduous, with the distance from our computer being the only limiting factor.
College students, however, have faced such a reality since far before the onset of the pandemic.
Many, if not all, of us eat, sleep, and breathe school — perhaps not academics alone but when combined with extracurriculars and meetings, you get pretty close. Most students, for example, would scoff at the notion of not having any obligations on the weekends. We also quite literally live at “work” — the classroom and library are each a stone’s throw away from where we eat, sleep, exercise, gather, etc., and we see the subsequent repercussions both now and in non-COVID years. But it’s not just physical distance; it’s time — our Google Calendars are cast wide open, free to be scheduled for almost any waking hour of the day, 7 days a week. When was the last time you turned down a meeting because it was outside of your “regular working hours” or because you weren’t going to be “at the office”?
In some instances, such encroachment into our schedules does not haphazardly fall onto our calendars but rather is baked into it. Sections (and sometimes seminars) are scheduled as late as 7 p.m., and libraries remain open until 2 a.m. in the morning, if not later. And our busy weekday schedules leave us with little choice but to saturate our weekends with extracurricular activities.
In the middle of a pandemic, when our work literally follows us into the bedroom, it’s hard to ignore how fraught these boundaries have become. But for students, it is little more than an exacerbated version of the reality we have grown accustomed to in college: a livelihood that seldom evokes the liberty of saying “no,” of rejecting work’s intrusions into our moments of leisure.
Of course, there are a few quick fixes. For example, Yale could give students a break this semester. But in the long term, these do little to resolve a deeper cultural issue. In a twisted sense, being a “full-time student” is as literal as it gets: It’s not 40 hours a week, it’s every hour of every week.
To be constantly and continuously available is unsustainable. Zoom class, Zoom meetings and Zoom “catch-ups” — any meeting a click away — have taught us this. The promise of convenience and accessibility levy a tax on our calendars, further extending the windows we are available to one another.
Once we are all vaccinated and regain the privilege of returning to some semblance of normalcy, we must interrogate the ways in which we have grown accustomed to “living at work.”
We would be remiss to return to a modus operandi where we seldom have any partition between our academic and extracurricular obligations and all else life has to offer as students.
One day, the pandemic will come to an end, and we will once again be “normal” students. Now, it’s up to us to determine how that normality shall be defined.
AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray College. His column, “It’s Complicated,” runs every other Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.