Dr. Veena Tripathi Ahuja
COVID-19: Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand
There is not a life that has gone untouched by the COVID-19 pandemic. From the innumerable lives lost to the many communities, industries, and businesses pivoting rapidly to survive the pandemic, the changes due to the pandemic cannot be counted. During the initial period of lockdowns, there was a general sense of desperation. How could we all survive without face to face human contact and our normal necessities like grocery shopping, social outings, in-person school and work? At the same time, there was a new era that began with COVID-19. The pandemic changed the mindset of many in 3 major areas: setting personal goals and priorities, re-evaluation of current jobs and careers, and finding creative ways to keep lives moving forward as the world was turning upside down. Much like the famous rock, pebbles, and sand in a jar analogy, we identified the “big rocks” that are actually necessary in our lives to function in the pursuit of happiness and what priorities we are willing to demote to only pebbles and sand.
The first major change of the pandemic was that the limitations of the lockdown caused many people to slow down and prioritize what is important in our daily life. In the pre-pandemic life, there were never enough hours in a day. Families rushed from one activity to another, lamenting not being able to spend time together. With the lockdown, families had nothing but time to spend together. With endless time, it turns out “not enough time” was not the reason the house wasn’t clean, laundry wasn’t done, or workouts got skipped. Having endless time at home highlighted the stark contrast between what we feel we should prioritize and what we actually prioritize in our daily lives. While this led to many Netflix marathons and crazy Quarantine Olympics, families were also able to prioritize their main goals: protecting the health of the family, helping kids learn, keeping work going, and connecting with loved ones.
Along with rethinking our daily priorities, many Americans have drawn a different picture of what a successful career could look like. The idea of “work-life balance” was first mentioned in the UK in the 1980s as a way of helping women achieve a balance between home and a career. Now that research consistently shows that improved employee wellbeing is associated with improved employee engagement, discussions of how to achieve this elusive work-life balance have expanded to include all employees. Before the pandemic, if employees requested flexible hours or ability to work from home, the employer's response often was that their requests would effect the ability of the company to remain successful. Instead, employers would respond graciously with offers of amenities like yoga classes at work and, everyone’s favorite, required workshops on preventing burnout. During the pandemic, 40-60% of Americans were suddenly working remotely and still finding a way to be engaged and productive despite the stress, difficult situations like caring for young children, and being isolated from coworkers. Frontline workers scared for their lives discovered just how much their employers valued their wellbeing over being able to keep the business running. It is not surprising this has caused so many to re-examine what they truly want from their jobs. Termed the “Great Resignation,” America has seen millions of people in many industries quitting for a multitude of reasons as detailed humorously here by Trevor Noah. Those who are able to walk away from their current jobs are seeking out new opportunities and companies who will recognize their worth and prioritize their wellbeing. This has also served as a much needed catalyst and the motivation to those willing to work independently as entrepreneurs. In an unexpected turn of events, larger corporations now have little to no choice but to prioritize employee well-being through increased support and accommodations as they should have been doing all along.
These dramatic shifts in priorities were seen not only at home and at work, but also in the ways people came together despite the limitations. In this crazy world turned upside down, our minds have expanded to include increasingly creative ways to connect with our loved ones. For example, it is now commonplace to celebrate major milestones virtually (Zoom baby showers, even virtual weddings) and enjoy regular social outings virtually (remote game nights or virtual watch parties). Families living in separate cities or even countries were able to attend social outings despite the distance. Hospitals and volunteer organizations found new ways to reach out and support the community while theaters, museums, and parks offered virtual tours. Even Halloween celebrations now commonly include trunk or treat and candy chutes to make sure that children can still enjoy the holiday safely. While this was geared towards enforcing social distancing guidelines, it also has helped children with autism and/or delays enjoy these previously overwhelming events. These efforts despite the current limitations have had the side benefit of increasing accessibility regardless of ability to travel, socioeconomic status, or disabilities.
The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented; however, the changes have been beneficial in surprising ways. By being forced to stay home, families were able to restructure their daily lives around their biggest priorities ("rocks"). By truly understanding what makes our careers rewarding, employees have been empowered to make career choices that will support a more flexible and healthier lifestyle. Connecting in creative new ways has helped our communities be more inclusive of many who would have been otherwise excluded. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been an incredibly difficult time, we can look for the silver lining of a world that prioritizes what rocks we truly need in our homes, careers, and communities. And everything else is just pebbles and sand.