Saturday, April 20, 2024

We’re In a State of Emergency. So, How Come So Many of Us Are Still Working?

Alice O’Connell’s take on trying to work in the face of yet more ‘unprecedented’ events. Pre-Covid, would many of us (non-essential workers!) even be thinking about trying to work from home right now?!?

When I first sat down to write this story, my laptop had 33% battery power. My cellphone wasn’t much better off. We’d been without power for two days thanks to Cyclone Gabrielle and Vector’s outage map had no updates about when our power may be restored, but people on our local Facebook page were speculating that it may be days, after a worker told them as much.

I was a few paragraphs into writing, when, thankfully, some commonsense took over. Why was I about to use my last bit of battery power to work?

Now, I know a lot of people have to work and right now, my God, I have so much respect and gratitude to you. (Honestly, a massive thank you to everyone in the emergency sectors and at Vector who have worked day and night to keep us all safe. Some of the things I have seen your workers do, while the wind was INSANE, is truly beyond impressive). But for a lot us, who have learnt in the last few years that our work is not exactly essential, why on earth was our first instinct to log back into work?

Covid has changed the way we work. And while some would say it’s for the better (yay flexible hours and the ability to work from home!), right now I believe we’re seeing the bits that are for the worse of it all.

We think we still have to work from home, no matter what.

How many people have had sick days in the last couple of years, that they just worked through, because, well, they still could from home? “I’m sick today, but I’ll be on email!” seems to be a regular thing we hear.

When the pandemic hit, we were safe if we stayed home. We all had power and water, a safe roof over our heads, and the ability to go out and shop when we needed supplies (or, most of the time, even just some nice-to-have items). We still had all communications up and running at our fingertips – as well as the need to keep our workplaces ticking over – so it made entire sense to work out ways to stay up and running, while in lockdown.

But now, in the midst of a natural disaster and state of emergency, things have the same lockdown feeling, and it seems that same lockdown mentality has prevailed.

All this, despite the fact that those of us who have been lucky enough to be safe in our homes and still have cellphone coverage, may actually still be without power, water, or the ability to move freely around with so many roads are out of action.

I talked to a few friends – some had spent Monday night building dams around their homes, or bucketing out water from around them. Many were without power come Tuesday – yet everyone seemed to be still working out how to continue working from home. One friend, who was without power, was figuring she’d just keep working until her laptop died.

Like many Kiwis, I turned to our local Facebook groups (a godsend) to work out what was happening in my area. One woman was canvassing our group for thoughts about whether she should try to get to a café or the local library (both a 20-minute drive away) and work from there for a while. She felt like she should be working, she said.

It’s a fairly new Facebook group – we’re in an area that got briefly cut off in the storms a few weeks back after the hill collapsed, taking out the road and, hideously, several houses in the process. That has left us with three long detour roads to choose from to get out to the nearest shops, or onwards to the motorway. During the cyclone, two of those roads were taken out by slips – and the third was underwater. As the water level dropped, that one road became passable, but dicey, as it was already down to one lane in parts from the previous storm. Yet still, many on the group (admittedly, even myself) were wondering if it was worth trying to brave it to at least charge up our laptops to work. Would we be able to get back if we left?

Are we all…okay?

My partner said something today that has really stuck with me. Having previously worked in emergency management he talked about how, on the whole, a lot of us suck at dealing with the recovery of an emergency.

We make plans for how to get through the emergency, to survive through it and get things running again, but, we often fail to address the recovery – and often that is all about recovering from the emotional toll of it. It’s something that emergency services now fully take into account when drawing up their emergency plans – ensuring they are supporting their workers in the aftermath – but, is it something us civilians even have on our radar?

It’s been a scary time, yet most of us aren’t giving our parasympathetic nervous system a chance to calm the heck down.

Many of us are just feeling lucky that we weren’t hit as bad as other people we know, or have seen on the news. It’s that ‘I can’t feel bad, because someone else has had it so much worse,’ mentality.

During the worst of it on Monday night, I was sitting upright in bed, holding my baby so he could feel calm enough to get some sleep. We were in the quietest part of the house, but, in the darkness you could still see the windows flexing under the strain of the wind and rain, as the house shook. It was so loud, it sounded as though our home was surrounded by Dementors from Harry Potter. Every now and then I’d check my phone, to see how things were going – were we over the worst of it yet?

At 4am I saw the news that Muriwai residents – not too far away from us – were being evacuated. My stomach dropped. I thought of them all, out there in the darkness, in the howling wind and sideways rain, holding their babies and pets. And I pretty much decided then, that I had nothing to complain or fret about. We were still safe. We were lucky.

Then, hearing the news about the loss of life in Muriwai, and then, continuing to watch the devastation down the east coast, I felt absolutely terrible. A friend talked about leaving home to run errands and feeling guilty about how normal everything felt in her area. It felt almost like survivor’s guilt.

What right did we have to feel entirely frazzled when so many others were suffering so badly?

Yet… this has been a stressful time for everybody.

Yes, for some it has been a heck-load more distressing than for others, but, bottom line, everyone has had some stress, uncertainty and fear to deal with in the last few days and weeks (or, actually, years), and yes, we’re going to feel exhausted from that and, no, we shouldn’t feel we have to rush back to work asap.

The power is just blinking back to life here, but, I think it’s time to run a hot bath and take some time out, rather than rushing back into the swing of things.

I truly hope you’ll do the same and take some time out for you.

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