Zooming to Sit Still
The best way I’ve found to gauge my burnout level in my day job is to stop doing it for a short time: take a week or so of PTO and monitor my state of mind as the time draws closer to going back to work. Most of the time, when I do this, my feelings register somewhere on the positive side of neutral — bummed that my break is almost over, but ready and willing to pick up where I left off, and already thinking about what I want to accomplish in the next week. On a few occasions when my time off has coincided with a transition between roles, I’ve felt a tingle of anticipation, the thrill of starting something new, which for me is about as positive as it gets.
The worst I ever felt coming back from a holiday was in 2008. We were hosting an exchange student that year, and to give her more of the grand American experience, we took a train trip across the country. We rode Amtrak’s California Zephyr from Chicago, across the plains and Rockies and through the Donner Pass to Sacramento, with day stops along the way. From there, we drove to L.A., then took the Southwest Chief route back east, pausing at the Grand Canyon. With two young kids and a German teenager in tow, the trip was challenging but magnificent, and as we got near the end, I found myself dreading going back to work. Our last night in the sleeper car, I lay awake, gripped by a panic attack at the prospect of returning to a job situation that had turned toxic. I made the decision then and there to leave the company where I’d worked nearly 16 years, my entire adult life. True to form, it took a few months of vacillating, guilt-ridden inner turmoil, and procrastination before I got out, but after that dark night on the train there was no other way it was going to end.
In my current job, the most significant test came in the summer of 2019, when I took six weeks off using my company’s sabbatical benefit, my first summer vacation since college. Going into the break, I was feeling fried and had a moderate concern that I’d never want to go back. But as the time grew shorter, I was surprised and pleased to note that my feelings on the whole stayed positive. I looked forward to seeing my team again and helping tackle some hard things we needed to get done. I felt like I was in the right job.
As I write this on the third day of 2021, I’m nearing the end of a two-week Christmas and New Year’s break. Time to take stock again: how am I doing?
The short answer: it’s not 2008-level Amtrak-panic-attack bad, but as our younger child likes to say, “It ain’t good, chief.” This time, though, the problem isn’t the job or the company. I’m fairly certain finding a new job wouldn’t solve the problem. It isn’t the work; it’s the way we’re working.
When my company first introduced Zoom meetings in March, at the start of the pandemic, it seemed like an elegant solution to a temporary inconvenience, a not-bad way to feel more in touch when we were forced to be apart. The company had tried other virtual meeting platforms over the years with varying levels of success, and Zoom was a clear step up — more stable and more intuitive to use than what we’d had before, plus there were the fun green screen backgrounds.
Initially, it was a step up in other ways as well. Meetings that before had been baggy and slow to start with people straggling in late became more efficient and on point. My ability to focus sharpened. Not having to run from one conference room to the next (often between buildings) meant I could use the full time between meetings to get work done, and my productivity went up. Many times in the first several weeks, I said things like, “I could really get used to this,” and, “Why haven’t we been working this way all along?” As COVID-19 surged across the country and it became clear that we wouldn’t be going into the office any time soon, I felt quite prepared to stay put and keep on Zooming.
I’m not sure when things began to sour. There were articles about combating Zoom fatigue as early as April, but I don’t think I started to feel it until the summer. By then, pockets of free time between meetings were becoming scarce; every conversation that had once been an end-of-meeting sidebar or hallway chat was now its own reason for another meeting. Within our group we tried to initiate Zoom-free Fridays so people could get back some working time; it lasted a couple of weeks, then fell apart because calendars Monday through Thursday had become impossible. Some people started scheduling meetings to end five or ten minutes early to at least allow for bio breaks in between, but all too often the meetings still wound up running the full time.
We’ve been working this way for more than nine months now, and I’m not sure how much more of it I can tolerate. All the benefits I’d perceived in the beginning — more focus, more productivity — are long gone. Days have become a barrage of fragmented conversations and rapid context-switching, a relentless daily ordeal that starts ever-earlier (with no commuting necessary, 7:00 am meetings have become common), ends ever-later, and leaves me in a persistent state of foggy exhaustion. I can’t remember the last time I finished a week with a sense of accomplishment for a job well done. I’m not sure it’s possible to do a job well under these circumstances, or if it is, it takes a different sort of person than I am.
Even the feeling of being more in touch has disappeared, similar to the way that engaging with others on social media can, paradoxically, make people feel more isolated. There are people I used to casually talk to in the cafeteria or the hallways whom I haven’t seen in months. Since April, I’ve had a new manager who lives two time zones away (having not been able to move to Oregon due to the pandemic), whom I’ve never met in real life. I like her, but I can’t say I really know her, and as the year has gone on, my sense of disconnection from her has become more palpable.
Maybe the thing I miss most of all is the ability to turn down the volume on my own voice. If you want to be heard through a laptop microphone, you need to project. One-on-one conversations, which in person would be conducted in soft and casual cadences, on Zoom have become bellowing sessions. Midway through an unbroken nine-hour chain of meetings, I’ll starting sounding to myself like a donkey braying with its leg caught in a fence. Even in those meetings where I don’t have to do any talking, other people’s voices start to feel like a physical force pressing on my skull. Listening to so many people quasi-yelling for so long, day after day, and quasi-yelling back at them, is its own flavor of exhausting.
All this while, I’m sitting in my office chair, sedentary, shoulders tight and back aching. We’ve been encouraged by leaders of the company to get away from our screens during the day, take walks outside, keep ourselves fit. But it’s just not practical when you need to use every minute of non-meeting time to get other things done. One upside about working for a company where meetings are dispersed across multiple buildings is that at least, pre-pandemic, I was moving my body all day long. The irony of getting paid to sit still for hours on end by a company whose mission statement is “Make sport a daily habit” is a little too on the nose.
I’m looking at my calendar for the week of January 4th, 2021. It’s not as bad as it could be. Only three out of five days have double-digit meeting counts, the worst being Tuesday, with 12 meetings between 7:30 am and 5:00 pm and a couple of 30-minute slots where I can grab lunch and respond to email and Slack messages. The back half of the week isn’t bad at all, although that will likely change as various folks coming back from the holiday realize there are Very Important Things To Discuss ASAP. Open space on the calendar never stays open for long.
For Sisyphus, forever rolling the boulder uphill, the worst part, both mentally and physically, must have been that moment at the bottom when he had to get the rock moving again. Once he had some momentum, it would have been a simpler matter of one more push, and another, and another. Right now, I’m at the bottom of the hill, looking up, feeling the mass of the stone against my tired shoulder, knowing I have no choice but to make the futile effort once again. I’m not thinking about what I want to get done, just thinking about how I will get through it. I don’t feel dread or despair, only a bone-deep weariness that a two-week break couldn’t fix, and a dull awareness that I need to keep Zooming just to stay in place.
“I can’t go on,” says the immobilized narrator at the end of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable, “I’ll go on.” This is no way to work, but we have to pay the bills, we have to stay afloat, we have to survive. What other option do we have? We’ll Zoom on.