When the pandemic struck Australia in March 2020, academics began losing their jobs in droves. Within a year, 20% of people employed in tertiary education had lost their jobs. And every day for 18 months, union organiser Frank Gafa would take their calls.
“I was day in, day out sitting in my house talking to people on the phone who were losing their jobs,” the Wailwan and Wiradjuri man says. “It was pretty intense and I didn’t really acknowledge it … that’s actually pretty traumatic to sit and listen to people’s trauma.”
For most of that time Melbourne, where Gafa lives, was in lockdown. Social and community activities were restricted – work was all that was left. And, like thousands of others – working from their bedrooms or kitchen tables, or wearing a mask providing a frontline service – he realised it wasn’t enough. Like thousands of others confronting their own work-life balance during the pandemic, he realised he needed to do things differently.
By August 2021, Gafa was burned out. He quit his job and started a new one, without taking a break. One month into his new role he realised his mistake: he did not need a change. He needed a holiday.
“I had this really unhealthy relationship with work where I had to be forced to go on leave,” he says. “So I had this little crisis of, maybe I could actually just have a break rather than keep pushing on? Maybe I should just stop and enjoy my life.”
He returned to the union and cashed in his unused leave to take three months off. The first few weeks were spent without his laptop, his first holiday without a computer for 10 years.
His newfound resolution is to take regular breaks once he returns to work. To find a better balance. The hardest part will be keeping it.
“Being a union organiser is really central to my identity,” he says. “I don’t know what I would do if I just got a normal, nine-to-five desk job. I think I might be lost.”
The pandemic forced many Australians to reevaluate their relationship to work and the central role it plays in our lives and identities.
They turned down work in favour of activities they actually enjoyed, scaled back their need for material possessions, and in some cases retired early, choosing to live a more restrained life on the pension than continue in a job they hated. Many said they quit jobs that did not align with their values to take on more meaningful work; others vowed not to let work – any work – dominate their lives any longer.
“The pandemic pushed me to make my life become meaningful again,” says Rosie Pavlovic, who quit her job and moved to New Zealand to be with her long-distance girlfriend. “I never want to work for something I don’t believe in.”
Some have been able to restructure their lives through remote work, a change of career, or a change of location. But many – because of insecure work or choices restricted by debt, poverty and family obligations – remain stuck.
David Thompson* is one of the stuck. Before the pandemic he was aware that he was “bored out of my mind” doing his well-paid office job but “I could distract myself with plans and holidays”.
“That’s not really the case any more,” he says. “And once that’s gone you just kind of look around and think, what am I left with?”
Thompson never really found his calling. He did all the right things: excelled at school and graduated with a science degree from a good university, with the aim of finding “any job that I can tolerate that earns me enough money to fund the lifestyle that I want”.
That lifestyle is not extravagant, but it has expanded to fill his income. He could not afford to maintain it and to pay the mortgage if he were to start over in a different career, and won’t risk his children’s financial security to secure his own happiness.
Thompson is determined that his children, facing global existential challenges, will have a different life.
“I say to them, if you have something that you can grab onto now, and you really love, then by all means follow that and if you don’t make a lot of money doing it, I don’t care. You can live with us. Because the other way, I don’t think happiness lives there.”
‘It’s what I want to do with my life’
Joshua Badge, a Melbourne-based writer and academic, did place meaningful, fulfilling work over financial gain, and it left them close to homelessness.
Their teaching contract at a Melbourne university ended and they were left without the bulk of their income. They had been working as a writer on the side – but without teaching, writing became their mainstay.
“Partly out of necessity I threw myself into work, working more than I ever had … often 9am to midnight,” they say.
They skated on the edge of financial catastrophe for months. Work – the freelance researching which paid their bills – felt pointless against the backdrop of global catastrophe, and there are more catastrophes on the horizon.
“There is a real sense of nihilism about that,” Badge says. “The immediate material needs aside, why should we be working at all? What is the point of it?”
But the crisis did lead to a shift in identity: now when Badge is asked, ‘so what do you do?’ they answer: ‘I’m a writer’.
“I now tend to answer with what I want to be doing first and what I’m doing for money second,” they say. “[Writing] is not remunerative at all. But it’s what I love to do and what I want to do with my life.”
Badge is clear that they are choosing a life of doing what they love over a life of financial stability because the latter does not even feel like an option. Owning a home feels out of reach; many of their peers are living in sharehouses in their 40s. If work was more stable, those same people might be taking long service leave at this point in their careers. Instead, they are burning out.
‘A movement of working less’
Kristin O’Connell was granted the disability support pension in early 2020, after illness stymied her career in the not-for-profit sector. She spent the last two years working with the Unemployed Workers’ Union to support and advocate for those navigating the pandemic on below-poverty line jobless benefits.
It is hard, uncompensated work, and caused her to unpick one of the fundamental tenets of modern society: that work is inherently tied to income.
“Lots of extremely valuable labor is unpaid, and lots of totally worthless labor is highly paid,” she says.
In a roundabout way, she says, the pandemic exposed more privileged people to the idea of unpaid work: as their office jobs went remote, they suddenly had time to pursue other interests. O’Connell hopes the desire to keep that time “may build into a movement of working less”.
“That provides more opportunity for everyone to do more unpaid work that gives them satisfaction in their life and helps them support people who they care about.”
But O’Connell is not hopeful the change in attitudes to low-paid and unpaid work will outlast the crisis. She has already watched as the federal government doubled unemployment benefits overnight then shrunk them back a year later, with minimal protest. “None of those changes stuck with people.”
A flexible future?
While causing some to reconsider the point of work, for many the pandemic fundamentally reshaped how and where they worked. A Productivity Commission report from last September said that up to 40% of Australian workers had worked from home during the pandemic, up from ABS estimates of about 24% doing at least one day a week at home in March 2020. The Productivity Commission found that for some working from home was a welcome and hopefully permanent change, and others an additional stressor as lines between work and personal time became blurred.
One reader told Guardian Australia their workplace had become fully flexible and they did not plan to go into the office more than one day a week this year. “This is huge for me as a neurodivergent person and a single parent,” they said. “I am much more committed to my job and have produced more in the last two years than in previous years … I have also become much closer with my children, as I was working full time out of the home previously.”
Another said they felt the pandemic had eased the stigma on men working from home, or adopting more caring responsibilities. “I am prioritising myself and my career but not at the detriment of everything else.”
Others said working from home made them feel isolated and overwhelmed. The pandemic increased rates of burnout, particularly among women, says Australian researcher Gabriela Tavella. Tavella has spent the past few years researching burnout as a workplace disease alongside Prof Gordon Parker at the University of New South Wales.
“The pandemic has seen women disproportionately affected by burnout because of a phenomenon called the second shift, which is when you come home from work and then have to take on primary care and homemaking duties – a second shift of work,” she says. These workloads, during the pandemic, overlapped.
But despite the impact it had on women with children, Tavella says working from home during the pandemic allowed some people to reclaim time that would otherwise be spent in long commutes, resulting in a better work-life balance. According to a June 2021 report by the ABS, working from home and spending more time with friends and family were the two elements of life under Covid that people most wanted to retain after the pandemic.
Instead of getting on a train at 6am, people could sleep later, go for a walk, and still make their 9am meeting. They could do laundry and other tasks in their lunch break, freeing up their weekends for other pursuits.
For many workers, the risk of blurred boundaries between personal and work time is heavily outweighed by the freedom and flexibility of working from home. A report by the Australia Institute’s Centre for Future Work found that despite concerns about unpaid overtime and so on, 65% of people working from home expected to continue doing so after the pandemic.
Major workplaces have responded by introducing more flexible working. The Victorian public service now offers flexible working on all jobs. New South Wales public service, Telstra, and major accounting firms Deloitte and EY all did so prior to the pandemic. A 2021 study by the Workplace Gender Equality Agency found that four out of five workplaces of more than 100 employees had formal flexible workplace policies, and that there was “an overall upward trend” in the number of employers doing so. Flexible work, it said, had the capacity to improve worker satisfaction, productivity and gender equality.
But Australian workplaces have been slower to introduce fully remote work, meaning people still need to live close enough to their workplace to go in a few times a week.
Employment lawyer Rob Jackson expects that to change.
“At the moment people are still trying to recover from the shock of the pandemic and what it all means, and some are defaulting back to what was normal two years ago,” he says.
“But I think in 10 years’ time that working from home model will be much more commonplace. Traditional employers will see the cost-benefits of not having an office once they realise that the world hasn’t fallen apart.”
Jackson says there are some rational arguments for working from the office. Face-to-face meetings are still believed more effective than those which take place on video conferencing, and it is important for staff morale and workplace cohesion that employees know each other as more than a series of tiles on a group video call at the weekly team meeting, like a workplace game of Guess Who.
But there is also a strand of presenteeism among employers who want employers in the office, five days a week, where they can be supervised. That’s a mentality, Jackson says, which is likely to be rejected by workers who have the option to move on.
“There will be diehards who will maintain that five days a week, Monday to Friday, in the office, is the only way to operate. But I think they’re going to be in an increasing minority.”