Apr 12, 2020

No one finds joy in enforced idleness

written by Lisa Eason

With at least half the nation idle, sitting at home all day, people have plenty of time to think. This can be dangerous. Most of us are built for action rather than lengthy reflection — particularly in a time of universal fear about illness, death and a collapsing economy. I worry for our collective mental health if this episode carries on for many weeks.

More than three-quarters of us spend a large proportion of our time working. Studies by the pollster Gallup show that, more than anything, all over the world, a good job is what makes people happy.

Work is about more than earning a living. I prefer words such as livelihood or occupation to describe what we do: they have fewer negative connotations. Work can provide meaning and purpose — a reason to wake up every day. I suspect that a lot of the population has been lying in bed every morning for much longer than normal over the past weeks. But has that extra dozing made us more content? Somehow I doubt it.

Research shows that even jobs that many would dismiss as mundane provide surprising amounts of satisfaction for the substantial majority of those who carry them out.

Most jobs require some exercise of skill, which in itself gives fulfilment. Observing an actor on a stage or a carpenter on a building site is usually impressive. Work provides a routine and structure to everyday life, and is a vital source of social interaction.

For millions isolated in their homes, loneliness and cramped conditions are all they have to experience all day, every day, until this lockdown ends. Thanks to furlough money from the government, they should be receiving an income — but many are wondering if they will have a job at the end of this terrible period.

The taxpayer cannot afford to bail out as many as 10 million or more inactive but able-bodied adults for much longer.

It is natural for humans to want to be productive, and to enjoy being useful. Idleness is a disease that can become a deadly habit. Unemployment has been shown to be bad for health, leaving aside the challenge of living on benefits. All of us who possibly can want to contribute to society rather than be beholden to others for handouts.

Apart from sickness and poverty, boredom is possibly the greatest evil. Those who are used to being busy imagine an extended break will give them pleasure, but I believe no one is deriving any joy from these enforced layoffs.

Unfortunately, the illusion of labouring online at home might fool a lot of us into thinking we are being productive and engaged — but I suspect much of that time is wasted and hollow. I have always hated phone and video conferences compared to face-to-face meetings: our present situation has only increased my loathing.

I have had countless conversations with business partners over the past fortnight, and almost all have expressed deep frustration with their inability to work properly and be constructive.

They like to exercise their talents as entrepreneurs and create enterprises. Instead they feel trapped and helpless, putting their companies into hibernation, all their energies absorbed by negotiations with shareholders, banks, trade creditors, landlords and many other stakeholders, trying to keep their life’s endeavour from going broke.

This ghastly interlude is possibly a rehearsal for retiring — something I plan to avoid ever doing. My father carried on working until he was in his late eighties and I hope to do the same.

The idea of empty, slothful days is abhorrent. I would possess no self-respect if my life were only leisure, accompanying a complete absence of worthwhile work of any kind, be it business or teaching or charity or writing — something of value.

Of course, not everyone is wasting their time at home. My wife has just returned to the NHS front-line as a hospital pharmacist. I admire her courage and almost envy the vital roles she and all our healthcare staff dealing with the pandemic are filling. I am a failed medic, and at times like these I occasionally wish I had done something more significant with my life, such as saving those of others.

But through working everyone plays a part — investors and entrepreneurs by generating employment and supplying goods and services and paying tax to fund our public services. The country as a whole needs to get back to work — and soon.