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Do you really like your job? How COVID-19 made us think

The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting companies in many ways. As the lockdown has interrupted or dramatically slowed down most business activities, it has forced those companies who can survive to implement radical new strategies, of which the most common is the use of telework for most of their managerial, organisational and operational practices.

Existing studies show that dramatic crises have a major impact on people’s self-identity, by forcing them to reflect on themselves in relation with the world around them. The COVID-19 crisis is no different.

Questioning the social utility of work

The current crisis is an opportunity for each and every one of us to reflect on our job’s social utility. Let’s consider ‘key workers’ whose work is considered essential for society to function and cannot be done from home. Medical and care-home staff, bakers, supermarket employees, social services, firefighters, delivery drivers, rubbish collectors, utility engineers, police, the military, and so on. Some of these workers, who are too often considered to be at the bottom of the social hierarchy, have all of sudden risen to the top.

This reversal of values is epitomised by what has happened in many countries, with people spontaneously applauding medical staff from their balconies or doorsteps to thank them for saving lives. It is ironic that, until the pandemic, most of those same people were quite unaware of the protests of the same medical staff against the impoverishment of their national public health system and the lack of appreciation in normal times towards those who dedicate their lives to saving lives.

Questioning our sense of belonging

In addition, the current situation also reveals and potentially challenges people’s identification with their work. In particular, the most precarious workers - those who fear being dismissed at any moment and who have no other choice but to continue to work - become more keenly aware of their low status and vulnerability. For example, the many ‘gig economy’ workers who might prefer to stay at home but simply do not have the choice.

Other workers may take advantage of the physical distancing imposed by the lockdown by disengaging as much as possible from their job - that is to say, by expressing their emotional detachment from their work.

Conversely, the current situation also reveals the unfailing commitment of certain people: employers who do their utmost to save their employees’ jobs despite dismal financial difficulties; employees who go well beyond the call of duty to save their company and to help their peers who are experiencing difficulties. These behaviours express a strong sense of belonging, an identification with their work community that shows a more positive side to human behaviour.

Questioning the importance of work

Finally, for those whose daily work is now undertaken through telework, there is the question of the balances and boundaries that had previously been established between our personal and professional lives. For some, this may reveal their inability to set limits to their work and to keep time for their private life. For others, it reveals difficulties in being able to work efficiently when they are not physically present in the workplace. The unity of place, time and action imposed by the lockdown means that we have to address new challenges in achieving a healthy work/life balance.

An opportunity for a better work life

The current crisis exposes our professional identities in ways we could hardly imagine before. It causes us to examine the value of what we do, puts all our work under a spotlight and upends traditional hierarchies. While this may cause a sense of instability, it also constitutes a unique opportunity to reflect on our professional selves. How much do we identify with our work? How important is it in our life? And what is its social utility?

Answers to these questions can help us to define who we are professionally but also provide an opportunity to construct who we want to become in the future. The current pandemic is tragic, but it may also help us to reinvent ourselves.