Knowing what to do: occupational alienation in a pandemic

It’s hard to know what to do in a pandemic. There are so many things we can’t do the way we’d like to do them. There are other things we know we could do, but it’s hard to get started. Occupational alienation is a concept that can help us understand this situation. Karl Marx first named occupational alienation in his early work, seeing how factory workers became part of a machine, for the first time separated from the products of their labour. In other words, they worked hard, but were rewarded by money rather than seeing the direct impact of their work on the world. Job satisfaction was undermined because the workers had so little control over what was happening. Marx did not offer an obvious solution other than to attend to the power of workers, a solution which led to the development of his later, better-known ideas. That’s all I want to say about Marx, because it’s helpful to know occupational alienation as a concept has been around for a while but more important to understand it better.

In this pandemic, it could be helpful to think of occupational alienation in quite specific ways, because so many aspects of life are quite out of our control, from the mutating coronavirus to the behaviour of others who might not follow the lockdown rules, to the endless rain and cold of this long winter in the UK. Power to change currently seems beyond us: whether to change the weather, change the behaviour of people we see protesting about masks and civil liberties, or to stop the virus evolving. This makes life frustrating and the challenges difficult to reframe in a positive light.

To be alienated is to be unwillingly separated. This could be social, being separated from other people because of who we are as well as the temporary restrictions of lockdown. Alienation can also be a deeply personal experience, associated with being mentally unwell as problems like anxiety, psychosis or depression separate us from our familiar sense of ourselves. Occupational alienation occurs when we cannot draw near to a way of doing things that works better, despite our best intentions and even when we know why.

Several conversations and experiences over recent days have made me think about occupational alienation, where I’ve observed people or they have told me about how they cannot do things the way they would like to, giving rise to boredom, frustration, distress and despair. For some, relief is found through religious practices but the contemporary tendency is to use psychology to understand our difficulties. But popular psychology, especially positive psychology which sees the aim of life as happiness and optimal achievements through continual reframing, is letting us down in this apparently endless pandemic of fear and grief. Positive reframing, treats and time out can soothe but do not last. We know that even if we can leave our homes or work for a break, the pandemic comes with us, along with its overwhelming wave of alienation. This alienation ranges from deep feelings of not being ourselves to being separated from each other by masks, walls, travel restrictions and fear.

But if we engage with the idea that we might be occupationally alienated, we can also start to see how we have adapted and continue to adapt, to survive and in some cases, thrive. I saw this when observing the volunteers at the vaccination hub, who are a key part of the effort to vaccinate people as quickly as possible. I wondered who they were and what they would have been doing before the pandemic. I noticed the energy in the vaccination process: although this might not normally be part of someone’s job or interest, each person seemed interested and engaged as part of the combined effort. So even if an activity isn’t one you’d have chosen to do, if it is part of a bigger shared effort and uses your skills in a satisfying way, it might not feel as alien currently as something you know you like to do, but can’t.

During this pandemic I’ve heard about the difficulty people have in taking breaks: from the frontline where you are in contact with the public all the time, from home-schooling and work, from caring for vulnerable spouses and children, from shielding, from work when you have to be in one room all the time. It might be possible to step away and look out of the window, but it is hard to step away from the thoughts in your head and feeling of being trapped. Those of us with chronic illness have pre-pandemic experience of this, because we can never escape from our alienated bodies and minds. But we can all wonder what makes a good break, one that feels powerful and connected to who we are. How can we support ourselves and others to take a break? If we are aware of occupational alienation, the many remedies which are already offered can be adapted to our particular situation, so we can engage with them.

Occupational alienation is undermined by doing things differently and connecting with the world in different ways, rather than looking inward to our feelings and thoughts. It is hard to shake off the habit of using psychology to understand our world, but it is important. Many aspects of modern life alienate us as if there are insistent and unwelcome voices telling us how to live, what to do and who to be. These voices can have apparently good intentions, urging us to run, eat salad, be mindful, stay at home, save lives. But they are also alienating: if running is not feasible; salad is cold and unappealing; your mind is buzzing with fear; you have to go out to work or you will have no money; and you have done all you can to save lives but still people keep dying.

Those voices need to be processed, to do things in a sustainable way that belongs to us, as individuals, teams, families and communities. To run, for me, might mean to do things so that I run my daily routine effectively and reduce decisions about when to eat and when to sleep. To eat salad might be associated with growing food and gardening, or finding a recipe that doesn’t involve an expensive bag of leaves that I can only eat half of it before they are out of date. Being mindful might mean listening out for people who want to help, keeping in mind that the neighbour who has offered to fetch shopping could also buy a bunch of daffodils for me, and chat briefly with me at the back door when they come round.

Meanwhile, staying at home could be a chance to work out how to adapt the space so that it’s easier to do things differently, thinking about what I do, how I like to do it and what equipment I need. Locally, people have been appealing for unwanted gym equipment to create a home gym space. This attention to doing means giving up minimalism and being resourceful if funds are short. To do things that are engaging and satisfying often takes an effort, so having the equipment and materials in sight, ready to go, makes it easier to get started. It might not happen right now, but at some point I will take those first steps because then my frustration and boredom might ebb away as I get absorbed in a helpful way, not just killing time. And while I can’t personally save lives and I’m so grateful for the people who can, I can save what people understand as living by attending to and celebrating what they are doing.

You might be echoing my relentless critical inner voice: what about the people who don’t have resources, who live in fear, who are unwell? What about us? I remember when I’ve been asked to stop arguing and look up to see what is happening. And then ask myself if what I’m doing right now is helpful, who is it helping and could I do it differently? It’s good to ask questions but best when the focus shifts to what to do, as much as why, contributing to the general shared effort to survive this virus and the other challenges we face, of climate change and injustice. It might be tempting to say there’s nothing I can do, I can’t help or why help anyway? What is all this about helpfulness? Surely people should look after themselves?

Then think again about belonging, as a solution to our alienation. Until 2020, alienation was often seen in consumer terms: by gathering belongings, alienation could be overcome. Advertising gives us an illusion of choice and control. But belonging without doing is empty: it is what we do with the things we buy, or with the people we are connected with, that makes life more bearable. And what feels like it belongs, or is the right thing today, might not be the same tomorrow. Sometimes it doesn’t feel right for months or years. That doesn’t mean we stop doing it, but it might mean it’s worth tweaking it, shifting it slightly, so there’s some satisfaction in it each day, one tiny step towards a sense that we can own what we do in our lives.

Now you might still say, so what? I don’t need to know about occupational alienation! Too late, if you’ve read this far, you know about it now! So if you’re feeling alienated, you could ask yourself this:

  • What belongs to me that could help me through? What particular skills and ways of doing things do I have that are helpful and could make things better?
  • Who do I belong with? How can I make my bonds with them stronger?
  • What is the life that I wished belonged to me? How can I keep it in my sights and adapt the present as I move towards it?

Understanding occupational alienation has been my passion as an occupational therapy scholar and artist, challenged by my professional world and my chronic rare disease, ANCA vasculitis. There are solutions which can be designed for our particular lives. Be brave, be helpful, belong.