A Realistic Work Strategy for the Long-Covid Crowd
An academic-writing coach answers readers’ questions on coping with deadlines amid lingering health issues.
Note: In the “Are You Working?” series, a Ph.D. and academic-writing coach answers questions from faculty members and graduate students about scholarly motivation and productivity. This month’s questions arrived via Twitter and Facebook. Read her previous columns here.
Question: Despite the triple vaccine, I’ve had a Covid infection recently — and, like one out of five of my compatriots, some of my symptoms have not abated and possibly never will. I know you’re not that kind of doctor, but how in the world am I supposed to remain “productive” with long Covid?
Guess I’m “Super Immune” Now?
Dear Super Immune,
Welcome to the club. I, too, recently succumbed to a breakthrough infection, and although my case was demonstrably mild, there are some things that have yet to return to whatever the heck “normal” once was. I am both bewildered and infuriated by what, at times, feels like a pandemic-fatigued greater society’s “plug your ears and go, ‘La la la, I can’t hear you’” approach to safety and prevention.
Alas, pretending the disease isn’t dangerous anymore hasn’t seemed to make long Covid go away. Similarly, in the case of most workplaces — including, of course, colleges and universities — having few or zero accommodations in place to account for the often-unexpected range of long-term disabilities with which Covid gifts so many of us has not successfully mitigated these disabilities out of existence. Instead, somehow we are expected to make all of our deadlines as before. But how?
Now, once again, I am Not That Kind of Doctor. So if your finances allow it, your first recourse is to get an actual medical professional on board as quickly as possible, while coordinating with whatever passes for your institution’s disability or HR office to see what paltry accommodations you are able to wrangle.
Then, while the endless machinations are machinating, try some of the following work strategies — if you’re up to it — to get you going:
- If, like me, your primary long-Covid symptom is fatigue, then start with 10- or 15-minute tasks, as early in the day as possible, and work up to longer stretches. You may worry that you can’t possibly do any research of substance in 10 minutes. Rather than debating the veracity of that statement, I’d implore you to chip away at the more mundane aspects of your research. Every project has them. Footnotes, formatting, captions, figure aesthetics, bibliographies — there is some aspect of every research project that doesn’t take protracted intellectual engagement. Now is the time for you to focus on those tasks. Even if that means you are working “out of order” compared to what you usually do (and have never done footnotes before finishing a draft, for example), just try this approach for three to four weeks. You’ll be shocked by what you can accomplish in short bursts of work time.
- If your primary long-Covid symptom is “brain fog” (trouble with memory, thinking clearly, etc.), use that to your advantage. Grab an existing draft of something you’ve written, and read through it as if you were a distracted, put-upon, less-astute Reviewer-2 type. As you read, take notes for your future, healthier self to regard. A less sharp version of you can be surprisingly helpful in making sure your writing and ideas are accessible to people who are not currently trapped inside your mind.
- If your primary long-Covid symptoms are respiratory, make sure your health-care provider is on board and then find ways to work your therapy into your research, and vice versa. For example, take a 15- to 30-minute walk (or whatever you can manage) and use the time to daydream about your work — either on the broad strokes of a project or the minutiae of a paragraph. Upon your return, take five minutes to record your thoughts on your phone or laptop. (If you have respiratory symptoms and fatigue, then use one of your 10-minute sessions from above to transcribe the best parts of your meanderings. How’s that for synergy?)
It’s possible that even these simple strategies may be too much for you to handle right now. Trust me, I understand.
And that is when safe mode comes into play. Everyone over the age of 35 remembers what used to happen when the old-school PCs went on the fritz and the dreaded “blue screen of death” occurred: If you could actually get your PC working again, it often went into safe mode, in which only a fraction of the programs worked, the font was 19 point, and the screen went as pixelated as the original Super Mario Bros. The computer had the good sense to let us know that anything over and above its absolute basic level of functionality would cause it to melt into goo. So, too, might be the case with you.
This means that, for the foreseeable future, (assuming medical leave is unavailable to you) you should simply do the absolute minimum you need to do to keep your job and not a millimeter above it. Eventually either the support infrastructure will catch up to long Covid’s reality — or we’ll all realize we didn’t need to be doing so much in the first place.