I wholeheartedly support working from home. It is a reasonable accommodation for individuals during these pandemic times. However, the push to work from home does not always consider the type of work one does and how that ultimately impacts the individual and those around them. 

I am eight business days into remote work-life in the wake of COVID-19 and I am 100% over the race to have the best and most aesthetically pleasing work from home set-up.

When Workday Minnesota shared this article from “Bored Panda” on Facebook, I couldn’t help but applaud. I acknowledge that I am complaining from a place of privilege here, but if we’re being honest, working from home is a privilege. Having a comfortable place to do so is a privilege on top of that.

Within the last year, everyone at our nonprofit got a new laptop, so when the call was made to conduct our essential services remotely, I only needed to borrow a table to make a functional workspace in my spare room. It may also double as bike storage, but it gets the job done.

Many of my colleagues had to get creative with their set-ups. For example, a card table in a studio apartment, careful to keep their bed out of view during virtual counseling sessions or a borrowed side table in the corner of a bedroom in an attempt to find privacy in a house with multiple roommates. Normally I would say that one’s set-up is the least of their worries, but in our case, it plays a big role.  

We are advocates.

Our organization provides direct services to people who have experienced sexual violence. We operate a 24-hour crisis line, conduct in-person counseling, host support groups, provide legal advocacy, and support people at the hospital during forensic exams. Working remotely means that we can continue providing most of these incredibly important services, but it also means that we are now providing crisis intervention from our living rooms and bedrooms. 

We are used to holding space for other people’s pain, but now we are doing it from our own homes. This is hard, emotional work and there’s no escaping it. 

People who work in the field of sexual violence often experience secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. Psychologist Charles Figley described compassion fatigue as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically, and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” Left untreated it can lead to increased anxiety, depression, disrupted sleep, decrease in cognitive ability, social isolation, and a general loss of empathy. 

Every article on the subject explains that the best way to combat compassion fatigue is to engage in a healthy self-care practice.

How do you take care of yourself when you can’t really leave work? For me, I can shut the door to my spare room and not have to open it until the next day. But what about my colleagues answering calls from their bedrooms? How do you wind down in a space that has processed so much of someone else’s trauma? This is hard enough to do remotely, but even more difficult in the wake of social distancing and Stay Home orders. 

This work is meant to be done in an office. In community. Surrounded by others that you can rely on for help and encouragement, while also maintaining confidentiality.

You can debrief the tough calls and lean on each other when you need to. You can commiserate about the various systems that impact the work we do. You can laugh together and just be. 

At the end of the day, you can leave it all at the office and return tomorrow ready to support the next person who needs you. When doing this work from home, you’re working in isolation. No amount of Zoom calls can replace the levity that true human connection brings.  

Amidst the competition for the most polished workspace is this growing narrative on social media that working from home means you have an influx of extra time for yourself. Clean your house! Learn a language! Projects! Projects! Projects!

The reality is that working from home often means my colleagues and I  have less free time because it’s harder to transition from work life to home life when the two are so blended. There is no “shutting off” at the end of your shift.

We use tools such as Basecamp and Google Hangouts to stay connected and share unique rituals that we’ve established to cope with our new reality.  

When a commute would normally act as decompression time, some take a walk before and after their shift as a replacement. Some wear a specific article of clothing, say a sweater, and take it off when their work day is done. Some immediately shower to symbolically wash away the day. We’re just trying to do our regular jobs while keeping our mental health intact. We don’t need pressure to be more and do more.

I am lucky to work alongside some amazing people. True advocates who are ensuring that we are still up and running in a time when other agencies have had to lay-off employees and stop providing services altogether.

We are essential workers and while we may not be putting ourselves in harm’s way physically, the work we are doing comes at a great cost to our mental and emotional health.

I’ve seen posts on social media prompting folks to “check in with your strong friends” and I cannot express enough how crucial this is right now. Check on the emotional caretakers in your life.

My work doesn’t normally weigh heavily on me, but I have no problem admitting that I am struggling right now. Struggling to cope with the stress. Struggling to stay motivated and engaged. Struggling to feel seen and validated.

My colleagues and I are doing what we can to make sure that we can continue to show up for people. We’re checking in with each other, encouraging each other to get outside, and enjoying the sun when we can.

It’s even more clear now that we truly are stronger together. We’re a team. We’ll get through this, and when we do it won’t be because of an Instagram-worthy workspace.

Ashley Taylor-Gouge has worked as an advocate in the anti-violence movement for over 10 years. They currently serve as the Program Director of a standalone rape crisis center in Minneapolis, where they provide oversight of the organization’s direct services, manage the agency’s outreach and education efforts, curate their social media presence, and coordinate their programmatic evaluation.

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