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Work, guilt, and COVID-19: Overly honest methods

Working through a pandemic has introduced innumerable stressors. Those with families, health concerns, those who live alone all face different challenges, magnified in the shifting uncertainty. At Pitt we have returned to some normalcy for a while. We have returned to work in some capacity. This brings new stressors. All this has made it very clear that no matter the circumstances, science can persist. With this, unfortunately, comes the guilt.


I may be alone in this, but I have come to learn through my time in grad school that very few experiences are singular. We all experience similar joys and sorrows. Unfortunately, in the moment, these feelings often feel unique and new. My hope in writing this is that someone might see themselves in it and feel less alone.


I recently saw a tweet (regrettably lost in the mess of my timeline) describing all the emotions I’ve been feeling. Isolation, guilt, hopelessness. All attributed to the trauma of this time we’ve been living through. Realizing this and allowing it to hold the weight- the same weight it has been exerting on me- I could begin to move past it.


I don’t love to admit this, but at first when we were asked to work from home, I felt some relief. I may have even felt excited. I could work in my pajamas, sitting on my couch, at home with my partner. I was lucky not to have anyone else to take care of. Maybe this short shutdown could feel like a bit of vacation, a break from a rut I’d been feeling trapped in. Perhaps, by the time I’d return, I would feel renewed and ready to take on the experiments I had been putting off for too long. I did feel all this in some measure. I was grateful to be at home, with company and slippers. However, quickly, a new anxiety began to creep in. Watching numbers climb, seeing people arguing online about the truth of the whole emergency, watching people brutalized for trying to live, feeling an overall helplessness, I fell away from my work. I wasn’t productive. I was exhausted. I, with no one to take care of but myself, housed and fed, securely employed, could not bring myself to focus for a full day every day. Some days I was lucky to get a half day of work in. Most others, I did far less. And as these days began to pile up, the guilt crept in.


I have a great boss. She always tells us that science isn’t everything. Our health is most important, and our personal lives are a priority. Even still, I couldn’t bring myself to stop the thoughts pushing in that I wasn’t doing enough, I didn’t care enough, I was lazy. Maybe in some way those were all true, but only because at the same time, a constant stream of alarm bells were being rung before my eyes. A few days off Twitter helped a little but created a new guilt. Did I not care about the world?


I’m still feeling the guilt, though returning to work and hyperfocusing on a new project have helped immensely. The thing that helped the most was talking with a colleague about my feelings. She is someone I’ve always looked up to as a hard worker and a brilliant scientist. She is the type of person that makes this all look easy, though she’s also the one to always tell you when she has a hard time. I’m taking solace in all the moments I can talk with others in the department. We can’t see each other as often, but the joy I feel when I meet with another BioSci grad has lifted a great weight from me. I want to take every chance I can to bring this joy to someone else. I don’t know how long we will be in this, but I feel some relief knowing I’m not the only one.


TLDR; The extreme pressures of trying to do science amid a global pandemic and major social upheaval have led me to feel extreme guilt related to an understandable drop in productivity. Recognizing that I’m not alone in these emotions, and that they are valid has helped relieve them.


Rachel Bainbridge

4th year PhD student : MCDB

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