Pervasive fatigue: A lack of distance in times of distancing

Amanda Diserholt on ‘a monotonous reality with no end in sight’…

How are you, right now? Fatigued? For many, during the Covid-19 pandemic, fatigue has changed. We have witnessed – and are to a certain extent still witnessing, despite the gradual return to in-person work and socialisation – reports of fatigue, and relatedly pain, across groups in fundamentally different situations.  

Health care professionals have offered up concrete evidence of their tiredness and pain through photos on social media – weary faces with marks from PPE equipment, accompanied by descriptions of tough working conditions. The experience of fatigue and pain are likewise common amongst those who contracted the Covid-19 virus, with those two symptoms among the most prominent ones persisting months after the onset – so much so that there is currently a debate around the potential overlap with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (CFS/ME). For those who are working or have been working from home, the expression ‘Zoom fatigue’ has caught on, and, while being significantly less talked about, ‘furlough fatigue’ has been mentioned in articles explaining tiredness during lockdown and the pandemic more generally; an experience which could be shared with those who were/became unemployed. 

There are cultural theorists who have offered explanations for such an increase of fatigue. Byung-Chul Han, who in his book ‘The Burnout Society’ broadly argued that the omnipresence of fatigue is due to an internal obsession for achievement, is now saying there is a strengthening of this phenomenon during the pandemic, where the compulsion to achieve extends to areas outside of work. However, as Žižek rightfully points out in his recent book ‘Pandemic! Covid-19 shakes the world’, Han’s perspective does not sufficiently consider external pressures and limitations. Indeed, the pandemic has reinforced certain sociocultural and political structures which were already there. 

Most notably, a socio-political aspect which has been intensified is the late capitalist demand for constant productivity and presence, made possible by the advancement of technology, a precarious job market, tough working conditions, and the fact that even sleeping/resting/time off has turned into a commodity to be performed as effectively as possible. Such a demand to be productive in every single aspect of our life, (including sleep) and to monitor and register everything we do (including sleep), has led to a disintegration between work and time off, the external and internal. We are constantly, monotonously, ‘on’.  

It is in this way we can start to discern a similar experience, although by no means the same, across the situations created by the pandemic – of things being ‘too much of the same’. 

A presence that is too much

This is where I diverge from Žižek’s suggestion that there are different types of fatigue depending on the work engaged in: tiredness caused by monotonous line-assembly work, constantly having to be nice in care work, creatively intense work for a product one cares little for, or 'creative team work’. While there are different qualities to fatigue as shaped by one’s particular situation – for example, physically straining work and being biologically affected with a virus might give a particular undertone to fatigue – I am focusing in this article on some broad experiences that may contribute to giving rise to or strengthening fatigue across various situations. I argue that this structural experience constitutes a monotonous reality with no end in sight, a kind of ‘too much of the same presence’, which can be filled up with different content.

In other words, contrary to what has been commonly and repeatedly put forward as being the most difficult aspects of the pandemic which induces fatigue – absence, isolation, loss of others and community (something Han argues) – I am proposing that a presence which is too much can equally, instead or simultaneously, act as the culprit. It’s about not having enough distance to both/either ourselves and others. This is not to dismiss experiences of isolation and loss that are in some cases too real, but merely to highlight an experience – not usually a conscious one – that has been neglected as a contributor to fatigue and which can exist alongside its opposite. Also noteworthy is that not everyone reacts to social distancing measures in the manner I outline, as for some it can sometimes mean less demands/pressure and social anxiety – being able to stay a safe distance from the presence of others. 

Nevertheless, the existence of a ‘too-much-of-the-same-presence’ can perhaps most convincingly be made for those who worked, or are still working, from home. With work, leisure time and home-care duties being physically in the same place – and with the demand for productivity thus being amplified, particularly as switching to a new medium meant for many more work – the boundary between work and other aspects of life are ever more blurred.  

The collapse of boundaries

Socialising and time off are too close to work, the former not uncommonly continuing over the same medium as the latter (the laptop and even the same programs such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams etc.). Communicating with others online – be it either for work or socialising – can easily become too much for several reasons.  

Firstly, there’s thee presence of gaze online, even though we are out of people’s direct gaze (as you cannot look at someone directly in the eyes). Being directly gazed at can be protective but at the same time overwhelming, hence why online interactions can sometimes be more comfortable and safe. The same goes for not showcasing the whole body, and leaving the body out physically. Nonetheless, having the feeling of constantly being watched but not knowing if people are looking, and where, can be anxiety-inducing. Contributing to this is the fact that that we are now oftentimes included in the view on the screen, in a way seeing what others are seeing. This takes the position of ‘being on the outside looking in’, constituting the ideal place from which to judge oneself, which can easily become weary in relation to the ongoing multi-tasking. The presence of the image and idea of ourselves are thus ever so close, with the boundaries between the internal and external, work and the personal, increasingly blurred – reinforcing the constant, ongoing evaluation part of contemporary society, where our private lives are now also up for scrutiny and affects our professional lives (as evidenced for example by the not uncommon process whereby one’s professional career is ‘cancelled’ due to something that went on in private). 

Secondly, there is no possibility of sharing food or beverages online, at least not to the same extent as in-person; items which can mediate and make more bearable the presence and proximity of others, as argued by psychoanalyst Darian Leader in his book ‘Hands - What we do with them and Why’. Adding to this, the inability to spontaneously form one-on-one interactions means one is stuck in group conversations whether one likes them or not. And lastly, the physical movement between meetings, work and home offered a space in which we could take distance from, and reflect and process conversations, alongside the presence of others.

All of the above-mentioned contribute to the collapse between work and leisure time, with not enough difference between the two and the inescapability of ‘work’: work never ends and leisure becomes work, which reinforces a late capitalist structure that was already there pre-Covid times. It consequently leads to an ever-increasing experience of an inescapable monotonous reality, a presence that is 'too much of the same’ and too close. 

Filling gaps

All of this places (further) demands on the individual to actively create their own boundaries to mediate the presence of others and obligations, boundaries which were previously spontaneous, external or inherent to rituals, such as the office closing and travelling to work. Indeed, the accumulation of demands is another presence that can easily become overwhelming. Not uncommonly, food and alcohol are often used as attempts of escaping demands and marking a difference between work and time off.

Such self-creation of boundaries/differences in the face of a monotonous reality, both of which can be exhausting, is an experience that can also be present for those being/who were furloughed, unemployed, and even essential workers. With work, one often has clear-cut tasks and generally a purpose which can protect against exhaustion. But even so, every-day obligations can easily accumulate in combination with the time-consuming, repetitive task of applying for jobs, the constant worry/uncertainty about the future of one’s job, or indeed the reality of added caretaking. Not to mention that those who had more time on their hands were told they should now rest and/or ‘reinvent themselves’ (operating under the demand to ‘slow down!’ and ‘consume!’ but ultimately under the overarching one of productivity): pick up that instrument, sport or language that have been put off for so long. That is, people were told to isolate but to quickly fill up the gap it potentially created. The confinement to the home gives a concretely monotonous reality, which could also be the case with the repetition of everyday obligations, and with these now being more inescapable.

Not uncommonly, essential workers were forced to adapt to more intense shifts with added precautions and increased workload, thus amplifying the prevailing demand (‘keep going!’) and particularly that of being flexible (‘keep going no matter what!’). Particularly with the lack of possibilities of existing outside of work and the home, or outside the home for those not working, the sense of stuckness and inescapability this creates, both from demands and a monotonous reality, can quickly become exhausting. 

Such stuckness can also apply to Long Covid patients confined to their illness, as they are unable to escape their unbearable and uncomfortable symptoms that are far too overwhelming, persistent, and mysterious. There’s no framework available to understand their symptoms, those symptoms cannot always be registered, and they’re unpredictable. In this way, something internal and intimate (one’s bodily symptoms), becomes external and foreign (unknown, uncontrollable symptoms), thus blurring the boundary between the two. Indeed, some patients dedicate much time and effort into getting better without any results.  

Running on the spot?

This brings us to an incredibly frustrating experience I believe contributes to the increase of fatigue: the experience that immense effort has no effect. Social distancing as well as working more intense shifts within health care (or essential work in general), is usually felt to contain a sacrifice. In accordance with what Žižek argues, when this sacrifice is made for the collective good – contributing to saving and protecting lives – then it leads to a ‘worthwhile’ fatigue, and I would add can protect against unbearable and intense fatigue. But it is when one feels that one’s sacrifice and effort are to no avail that a heavy, hopeless exhaustion can appear. This has become evident through social media posts, both by those isolating and those working in health care. Through these, there have been multiple appeals to the population to follow social distancing measures as a response to seeing people breaking them; often feeling like one’s effort has been undone.  

Similarly, healthcare professionals have explained how they go through enormous effort in attempting to save people’s lives, yet they die anyway; even more devastating when these are young, healthy people. What is more exhausting than the feeling that you’re running on the spot? That what you do doesn’t matter? Here we come back to the experience of stuckness and monotony, there being no difference to reality after one’s efforts. Again, this reinforces the contemporary capitalist experience of being a mere interchangeable and insignificant object in a wider system that has a life of its own, where there is a limitation to one’s effort in relation to the resources received.

There is thus a presence of helplessness in the air: that no matter how much one tries, Covid is here to stay. This is made even more salient by the current suggestion of a third wave and the existence of new variants the vaccine could be less effective against. This gives the monotonous reality an added, exhausting, experiential aspect: that the end of it is nowhere in sight, leading to the experience of a never-ending, overwhelming presence.  

Constant variety

In these complex, contradictory times, there’s also another experience – ‘too much difference’. There is a lot of variety, a twisted lottery, in how people respond to the virus. Even healthy, younger people can get severely ill and even die. The presence of the virus, its consequences, and how to combat it, are highly uncertain. This contributes to a sense of cold, random indifference, which is even more jarring in a society obsessed with control.

Reinforcing such experience of uncertainty is the constantly shifting and contradictory rules, combined with a highly precarious job market, which reflects and reinforces the already precarious free-market society where (temporary) jobs on questionable contracts and pay are now common and even competitive. Adding all these mentioned uncertainties together, we are experiencing another type of presence. It becomes, to borrow an expression used by psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, a ‘presence of an absence’: an amplification of uncertainty, and one that is experienced as inescapable. 

There is something contradictory about such a presence of an absence, and indeed this touches upon another experience that has been reinforced for some: that time and the future is suspended, while nevertheless moving fast and indeed being commanded to constantly move. Time is experienced to be standing still but is still inevitably moving, related to the exhaustive sense of running on the spot.

Nevertheless, both ‘too much of the same’ and ‘too much difference’ can be collapsed into the same experience insofar as ‘too much difference’ can turn into yet another presence that is too much of the same: constant variety. It is no wonder then that a common symptom of current times is suffocation – it being currently both biologically and symbolically experienced – which relates to a sense of exhausting stuckness facing an overwhelming, homogenous presence.

In conclusion, even though people have experienced an absence throughout the pandemic, I wonder how much of this is a defence against the fact that others, the idea or image of ourselves, obligations and bodily symptoms have intruded in some of our lives more than ever. These intrusions have blurred the boundaries not just between work and time off, and the external and internal, but also between self and others – leading to the emergence of a presence that is too much, too uncertain, and too close. 

-        Dr Amanda Diserholt is a Tutor in Psychology and completed her PhD at Edinburgh Napier University in November 2020. Her doctoral thesis explored the individual and sociocultural influences on the formation and experience Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)/Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. 

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