It’s OK to be unproductive during COVID-19 outbreak

4 minute read

At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 outbreak is starting to show its face in Brazil. However, due to the unpreparedness and the unprofessionalism of our president, we may face one of the strongest impacts of COVID-19; perhaps even stronger than Italy or China. Our country is taking too much time to take real action.

Two weeks ago, when many Europe countries were already practicing social distancing, in Brazil, things were operating pretty much normal. Only this Thursday (March, 19th 2020) my university decided to suspend in person activities. It took a lot of time to make this decision. Many of us might be already infected, even if the public numbers are not yet popping up. Unfortunately, “the greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function”.

Overnight, many of us have to shift to online jobs. For those that a good part of the job is already done online, this shift may not have introduced a great burden. However, for a significant proportion of the workforce, although privileged to have the opportunity to keep working during this crisis, going full time online may introduce many challenges. Take my case as an example. As a professor, I have to teach, supervise, grade, fundraise, hire, give talks, write, review, etc. Obviously, many of these activities can be done (to a great extend) online. However, when going full time online I miss one key thing that perpetuates in most of these activities: interaction. Yes, I can supervise online, but I have no idea if students are getting what I am saying. Yes, I can teach online, but I will never know if students are paying any attention to my recorded lecture. Yes, I can fundraise online, but I will not know if decision-makers are anyhow interested in my proposals.

One could say: “but you cannot be sure if a student is paying any attention even when interacting in person”. Yes, I cannot be sure, but I can have a gut feeling.

Yes, I understand that going online introduces many limitations. I also understand that the point is not to replace the in person interaction to an online alternative. The goal is to alleviate the problem. We are going online only due to COVID-19. We (professors) may return to our traditional job schedule when it’s done.

The point is: you may not be able to do your job in its fullest sense.

On top of this, you may have some loved ones that you should place additional care. You may have young kids struggling for your attention, now in full time mode, while you are juggling to keep your work done, now full time online. You may have aged relatives that may also be demanding your attention, even if, due to social distancing practices, you cannot visit them anymore; and you worry about them. You may have friends and colleagues around the world, facing unknown circumstances; and you worry about them. You may have students under difficult financial conditions; and you worry about them. Or you may be in a country lead by a sociopath; and you worry about everyone. Even if you don’t have any close relative in worrying conditions, you may still worry about everyone else.

These are all valid concerns, and I am sure there are many additional ones. Despite all of these, you still have to get things done at your now online job.

The point is: you may not be able to do your job in its fullest sense.

In the middle of this crisis, you may see yourself cultivating an internal crisis: you are grateful for being able to work from home, but you are having a hard time to perform similarly as you performed when you worked from office. As a consequence, the COVID-19 outbreak could also place a toll on your research agenda. Perhaps you have to go to the lab to run experiments; Perhaps you have to submit an IRB to allow you to do your research; Perhaps you don’t have a quite place at home; Or perhaps you don’t have a chair at home. For those that are under time-bound contracts (like on a postdoc or on a tenure track), COVID-19 could also impact the likelihood to get a stable position.

My personal take about this situation is: It’s OK to be unproductive during COVID-19. It’s OK to feel a bit lost. It’s OK to do not have much energy to work. Take your time, take care of those that need you the most, and (more importantly) take care of you. When you recover from all of this, you will get back on track.

Finally, if you are in position of power, don’t be a jerk. You don’t need to be your students’ best friend to be supportive. Tell them that they don’t need to do their best work during the crisis. And keep your door (or Skype chat) always open.

Ultimately, if you are participating/will participate in a hiring committee, it is part of your job to pay attention to any potential candidate that had a decrease in their research outcomes during 2020/2021. Ask them why does this happen. Make sure you ask this in an welcoming manner to encourage the candidate to share her thoughts.