Work After the Pandemic

Heather Zeiger
Heather Zeiger is a freelance science writer in Dallas and has advanced degrees in chemistry and bioethics. She writes for The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, Salvo Magazine, and Mind Matters News.

In an essay written in 1942, Dorothy L. Sayers called her readers to be suspicious of a phrase commonly used among her fellow Britons. “After the War,” she heard her countrymen and women assure each other, things will go back to normal. Work, in particular, will go back to normal. Sayers’s essay “Why Work?” asks the question: Do we want to go back to normal?

“Normal” was the prewar consumerist culture that degraded work and exploited the worker. By contrast to this waste economy, Sayers paints a picture of the conservation economy adopted during the war. Men and women had learned “the bitter lesson that in all the world there are only two sources of real wealth: the fruit of the earth and the labor of men.”

The pandemic is our war. And we crave normalcy; we crave, even, work as it was before the pandemic. But we would do well to listen to Sayers. She insists on our having a right attitude to work:

because it seems to me that what becomes of civilization after this war is going to depend enormously on our being able to effect this revolution in our ideas about work. . . . The question that I will ask you to consider today is this: When the war is over, are we likely, and do we want to keep this attitude to work and the results of work? Or are we preparing and do we want to go back to our old habits of thought? Because I believe that on our answer to this question the whole economic future of society will depend.

Sayers’s vision is of dignified work that glorifies God; this work depends on and promotes an economy that enables human flourishing. To Sayers, the economy of twentieth-century Great Britain was one that promoted greed and envy and was founded on trash and waste. The economy had to be “artificially stimulated,” as she put it, to induce people to buy things to keep production going.

I didn’t fully grasp what Sayers meant until, early in the pandemic, I saw a news report about a farmer who had to destroy his lettuce crops because people were eating at home more than they used to. His largest buyers had been restaurants. The news piece lamented the farmer’s plight: a sad reflection on the current state of our economy. But what if eating at home, or at least eating at home more often, is better for people, both nutritionally and communally? Many studies have recognized the benefits of families eating dinner together in the evenings, and nutritionists have long been trying to get people to cook more and eat out less. The economy, it seems, flounders when people are doing healthful things.

This was partly due to overplanting. What is “best for the economy” has to do with turning a profit, and the more people eat out—the more they eat, period—the more everyone in the food-supply chain can turn a profit. Gluttony helps the economy. The news report lamented the closing of restaurants, the acres of crops destroyed. But what are we to do with the idea that if men and women do what is best for their families, the economy may simply not be of a shape to support the restaurant industry or the food-supply chain as it exists now?

The economy, it seems, flounders when people are doing healthful things.

In Wendell Berry’s essay “The Pleasure of Eating,” he writes that “the consumer . . . must be kept from discovering that in the food industry—as in any other industry—the overriding concerns are not quality and health, but volume and price.” Berry wrote forty-six years after Sayers but has many of the same concerns she does with dignified work, waste, and consumerism. His writings tell us how we answered Sayers’s question of whether we wanted to go back to the habits of mind and practice about work and the economy we had before the war. We did.

We have an opportunity now to consider her questions again. After the pandemic work need not be what it was before the pandemic. We can heed Sayers’s warning about postwar attitudes toward work in our modern, postindustrial, pandemic context. There are three primary ways work has changed during the pandemic that we should consider keeping after it has ended: (1) we began to value the local and essential worker again; (2) employers started treating employees like humans with lives and families; and (3) people rediscovered the idea of leisure.


Local Work

A key theme in Sayers’s essay is valuing work rather than valuing profit. By this she means that workers should have meaningful work, which comes out of valuing the perfection of the thing made (or the work done). Work in this context aims at the transcendent because it is really about the dignity of the worker, as a workman made in the image of a God, and therefore dignifies his or her work.

We all felt this transcendent value in March, when we started using the phrase “essential workers.” This didn’t only include those in the medical field, whose work and sacrifice have rightly been esteemed during this pandemic. It also included those people in our everyday lives whose work keeps our society functioning, but whose work had been less honored in the culture we lived in before the pandemic. The pharmacist, the grocery-store clerk, the garbage collector, and the truck driver took on new and important meanings when we considered what a shutdown really looked like. These are our local workers, our essential workers. Their jobs didn’t change between February and March, but our attitude toward them did. The grocery store clerk and the truck driver are essential, but not just any grocery clerk or any truck driver. Rather, I understand that my well-being depends on the clerk at my local Kroger and the truck driver who delivers supplies to the stores in my city. It isn’t garbage collectors in general; it’s the garbage collectors who pick up my garbage every Monday and Wednesday, whose work keeps society functioning.

One way to understand a difference between essential and nonessential workers is this question of the physical, the local. Many nonessential workers were able to work from home largely because their work is not confined to a particular time or place. Essential workers are essential because their job is in a particular time and place, whether a shift at the hospital or a delivery of bread and milk. Nonessential workers, myself included, have an important role, but to borrow from one nonessential worker’s sentiment, if I as an essayist were gone tomorrow, and your local garbage collector were gone tomorrow, who would you miss first?

That’s not to say we won’t eventually miss the nonessential worker. As Sayers’s friend and colleague C.S. Lewis points out in his sermon “Learning in War-Time,” the “nonessential” work of scholarship must and should go on during war as during peace: we are after all always at war in one way or another; death always threatens us; we do the work of scholarship and of art and of writing in the teeth of death. But a war or a pandemic does lead us to question the weight of the value we’ve put on these jobs. As Lewis writes, “The work of Beethoven, and the work of the charwoman become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly ‘as to the Lord.’”

God calls all of us to certain jobs at certain times and places. Sayers’s discussion of work can seem idealistic. A grocery stock worker may not feel that he is working at his true and deepest vocation. But we have seen its value as work in itself, and after the pandemic, we must not allow ourselves to forget this.

Humanizing Workers

The pandemic has also required employers to take a different attitude toward their workers: at the very least, it has required them to recognize that their workers have bodies. One step beyond that, it has required them to recognize that their workers have dependents, that they live in certain places, that they are not widgets to be arranged or squandered.

Berry speaks to the economy we had before:

Our waste problem is not the fault only of producers. It is the fault of an economy that is wasteful from top to bottom—a symbiosis of an unlimited greed at the top and a lazy, passive, and self-indulgent consumptiveness at the bottom—and all of us are involved in it. If we wish to correct this economy, we must be careful to understand and to demonstrate how much waste of human life is involved in our waste of the material goods of Creation.

He calls this type of economy dehumanizing because competitiveness, greed, and consumption lead to a dog-eat-dog approach to interacting with people.

COVID-19 has done its best to force employers to set aside competitiveness, greed, and maximization of productivity and consider the humanness of their employees. Companies, whether by compassion, law, or cultural pressure, had to consider the health, safety, and well-being of their employees. If employees had to work, what safety measures were taken? If employees transitioned to working from home, surrounded by children and other family members, how could they be supported?

The visibility of children in the last few months has been striking. They pop up in our Zoom calls; their voices are heard in the background. Children intruding on the workday provide just one example of how the pandemic has humanized the worker. Many companies have extended grace to parents who are trying to educate their children while working from home by allowing flexible hours, by being good-humored about the interruptions of child care and family life. It isn’t a new situation that parents need support (and maybe a little grace) while balancing their competing priorities. The pandemic didn’t create this. But as with many other things, it did bring it to light. Where was this support six months ago? A year ago? Why were we, as a society, not supporting parents before? In “Economy and Pleasure,” an essay about the joy found in physical labor, Berry writes that “one of the most regrettable things about the industrialization of work is the segregation of children. Industrial work excludes children by haste and danger.” This has only been exacerbated by the conditions of our postindustrial service and knowledge-work industries.

Children get in the way of productivity. But productivity may get in the way of other goods. Many people found it relatable to see colleagues having to navigate a child in his lap (or the dog barking in the background or the cat walking in front of the camera) while meeting with someone online. Once the stay-at-home orders hit most areas of the United States, it was as though everyone realized that everyone else is struggling with work-life balance too. No one really clocks in and clocks out like a machine, but in a productivity-driven culture, many people were expected to.

The pandemic’s work-from-home orders have hopefully served to highlight how flexibility makes for healthier and happier employees without compromising company goals.


Rediscovery of Leisure

The stay-at-home orders have, moreover, brought to light for many Americans how their lives are oriented around their jobs. They live by the clock, which tells them how long they have until work starts or how long they have until work ends. For the first time, many Americans were told to take a break. Their means to be productive was taken away. The pandemic has forced many people to come face-to-face with real free time—in the terrifying context of marginal or uncertain employment, but free time nonetheless.

Joseph Pieper describes the “total work” mentality in which people orient their lives around work, leaving no room for leisure. The concept of leisure is lost on most of us. Leisure activities tend to be deeply edifying activities that cultivate virtues. Mortimer Adler defines leisure as those activities that cause a person to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually. Through doing those activities, he or she obtains personal excellence and performs his or her moral or political duty.

Adler describes the total-work mentality as one that acknowledges a three-part life: sleep, work, and play. This is opposed to a five-part life: sleep, work, play, leisure, and rest. The first is not a fully orbed life. Fulfillment and happiness come out of properly ordering one’s life, and that order must include leisure and rest in the Sabbath sense. Without leisure, work becomes the basis of one’s identity, the thing by which someone orders his or her life. Interestingly, premoderns considered this workaholism as rooted in the sin of laziness or sloth. Disordered desires led to a misuse of free time. Rightly ordered desires led to a virtuous use of free time, which included leisure activities.

The vice of sloth is different from the kind of laziness that our productivity-driven culture begrudges as a secular sin. Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung in her book Glittering Vices says workaholism and perfectionism are classic symptoms of sloth because these characteristics show an unwillingness to meet the demands of love. Workaholism is encouraged in a total-work culture, but it was a symptom of a capital vice in a premodern culture. The “play” allowed in slothful, workaholic cultures is passive and degrading: it is “being entertained.”

Leisure activities, meanwhile, involve effort, but it is joyful effort. As Sayers points out, the right kind of work uses the worker’s unique talents and abilities and challenges the worker. If we do not have a job that allows us this kind of work, we must cultivate it in our leisure: this is the important realm of the avocation, the delighted hobby.

Leisure activities, meanwhile, involve effort, but it is joyful effort.

We have not known how to make use of our enforced leisure. People who have lived very structured lives often experience free time as horror: at the least, there is a difficult and sometimes painful adjustment. This is true of high-powered executives or athletes who retire—or a bunch of American workers suddenly told not to go to work. For people who have lived a total-work life, not going to work isn’t freedom; it’s misery.

This might help explain why domestic violence, petty crimes, and alcohol and drug abuse have increased during the pandemic. One media outlet reported on the surge in the downloading of pornography during the stay-at-home orders. A local domestic-violence shelter said they were getting as many phone calls as they typically do during the holidays.

Even if people don’t turn to such extreme measures, many Americans realized they needed something meaningful to do when they didn’t have to work. They did not know how to tackle a day. The fact that people had to be told to “keep to a schedule,” “practice self-care,” and “take a shower every day” speaks to their mindset.

Before the industrialized era, home and work were intertwined. While this agrarian or tradesman society was not necessarily the ideal, certainly we cannot call it progress when we don’t seem to know what to do with our days without a “boss.” But what motivation or circumstance available is there for modern postindustrial man or woman to acquire these virtues of self-direction? Why learn how to manage your time, run a household, keep a schedule, or shower and dress unless you need to show up to a separate workplace when you have no financial or reputational incentive to do so?

This is of course linked to the fact that our homes are not places of production, but rather of consumption. They exist as recharging stations to enable us to get back to the real life of work, as though humans were cell phones whose batteries are drained by activity but who exist for the sake of that activity.

For a Christian, leisure activities are connected with the Sabbath, and the Sabbath, not our workdays, is the center of the week. By losing the concept of leisure, many people do not grasp what is meant by a Sabbath rest. Yes, you rest from work, but is that what the Sabbath is really about—watching Netflix and napping so you can go to work tomorrow? The pandemic hit Italy at Mardi Gras; in Europe and the United States, stay-in-place orders overlapped with the Lenten season. Everyone, Christian or not, was forced to take a break from their overscheduled lives and consider not just a break but a fast.

One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic fast was a surge of domestic activities. We found hobbies. We sewed masks. Many people had the opportunity to spend more time with their children, their spouses, or loved ones. Animal shelters saw huge increases in pet adoptions and fostering. We thought of our homes as places of survival, even of production: Rather than fast food and quick meals, cooking projects took off. In May yeast and flour were sold out at my local grocery store. At one point, it seemed as though everyone was attempting to keep sourdough starters alive. Families started sitting down to dinner together, and some of them even ate vegetables from their newly planted gardens.

People started going outdoors more. In Dallas, for example, a popular running trail had to stagger users based on last name because so many people were using the trail. A local nature preserve had to close on Wednesdays because so many people were visiting they needed an extra day of maintenance. Sales for at-home exercise equipment and apps increased significantly during the pandemic.

Can we preserve this rediscovery of leisure? At the very least, we should try.

Sayers’s call for dignified work in an economy that prioritizes human flourishing rather than greed and consumerism is just as relevant today as it was in her time. We have been forced to reset our thinking on work, to break out of dehumanizing mindsets and support the worker as someone with a fully orbed life. What will we do after the war?