24 May 2020

A four-day week and other ways we can capitalise on what we've learnt from isolation

| Elka Wood
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Deserted Tathra beach.

Has COVID-19 isolation provided a window to a future life of less stress and appreciation of a slower pace? Photo: David Rogers.

Life is starting to swing back towards normal following our COVID-19 isolation.

Some of these changes I’m thrilled to meet again, such as watching my daughter happily slurp on her first hot chocolate in a cafe for a while, cosy fireside dinners with friends, and seeing how productive I am at work when both kids are out of the house.

As a friend with a toddler put it: “Having a reason to be out of the house at dinnertime or bedtime again is bliss.”

I’m looking forward – so much! – to the far-away future when we can travel, dance, flirt, see music and give our friends and family a big squeeze and kiss when we see them.

I feel I’ll never take human closeness for granted again.

But there are a few things I’m concerned about with the return to normal. Namely that for many of us, normal wasn’t good or healthy.

And it seems the Australian public is at least somewhat in agreement. This week there have been murmurings in the mainstream media about using COVID-19 as a chance to change the dominant culture and introduce a four-day workweek and other measures to improve our work-life balance.

New Zealand’s adored leader Jacinda Ardern has already announced plans to reduce the number of hours Kiwis will spend at work, in part to give the flailing domestic tourism market a boost by increasing the number of leisure hours New Zealanders have.

She also commented: “There’s just so much we’ve learned about … [the flexibility] of people working from home, the productivity that can be driven out of that.”

My mate Joe, a teacher in Moruya, was surprised by how much he enjoyed isolation, even as he and his wife, also a teacher, juggled caring for two little kids and teaching remotely.

“We eat dinner earlier now and it’s much calmer,” he says. “Apart from a few more visits with family and friends, I don’t want it to go back to normal. But I have no idea how to stop things going back to how they were.”

There have been lots of jokes about drinking more alcohol during isolation, but what I’ve noticed is people drinking less. I had dinner with a friend the other day and for the first time in years, she wasn’t into her second bottle of wine when I left.

We still drank wine but it was joyful drinking, not the exhausted drinking that you try to bury yourself in.

Those of us who are doing it all blame ourselves for not being able to cope with the demands of modern life. But isolation has shown us how much better we can be when we’re not stretched to the limit.

So as we return to some kind of normality, how can we be thoughtful about what we pick up again to retain some of the value we found during isolation?

Where will we show restraint, and in doing so, reshape our lives to make more room for what really matters?

I was chatting to my butcher the other day and he said he hadn’t reverted to normal business hours yet – and he wasn’t sure he wanted to. His face showed how he struggled with the problem.

“I don’t know,” he said, “not many people come in the afternoons anyway. Most of our customers still come, they just come in the mornings.”

What if he decided to keep his opening hours as 9 pm – 2 pm post COVID-19? He’d have a better life where he could pick up his kids from school and cook his wife some shanks after work, and customers would still get their meat and eggs.

Choosing to work and commute less has a lovely flow-on effect, as we’ve observed in the past few months.

Less pollution, which is slowing global warming, and less wear and tear on roads and public transport systems are just a few of the long-term wins of slowing down.

However, there’s still shame about not working enough in our society, even as we all quietly slip into overwhelm. I’ve met many people who look confused when I ask if they’d rather do their job part-time, or job share than continue full-time.

“Of course I would but that’s not a possibility,” they answer.

There’s the mortgage to pay, of course, but mostly it’s the social expectation to continue striving well past the point where we have all we need.

The situation we have now in the western world is what humans have been fighting for since the industrial revolution – if our ancestors could see us now, toiling away, they’d laugh in our faces.

Would you like to work less? If so, what’s stopping you?

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Nienke Haantjens9:39 am 26 May 20

woderful thoughtful article again, Elka!

Mary Gilmour8:00 am 25 May 20

It would be good for a better lifestyle for those still working and also good for Tourism even if it was just for the Winter months. If it brought more visitors to the Coast it would help small business shops and art galleries who currently rely on the Summer months to survive.

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