A Valediction: of Malaise Productivity
We Need To Stop Being Obnoxiously Bad at Being Sick
I mean it. I’m terrible at it, and if you’re reading this my guess is you are too. It’s like we’re all part of this awful club we invented in our heads, yet none of us actually want to be a member. But we are, aren’t we? We’re card-carrying disciples of its farcical mission, of malaise productivity: to walk the tight rope of being sick whilst still remaining productive in any way we can.
I can’t be bothered to have another conversation about our unhealthy relationship with productivity where our value is tied up and sinks to the bottom of a to-do-list cesspit where Instagram announcements trump valued mental health and wellbeing. As @dudettewithsign eloquently points out: maybe we should start therapy, not a podcast. Perhaps the former should be a prerequisite for a side hustle if you’re a Type A, work-orientated junkie like me. We’re all too familiar with the cause of malaise productivity: capitalist integration of one’s value equalling productivity; the misrepresentation of overnight success; technology advances enabling one to send an email from one’s child bedroom; good old-fashioned catholic guilt. The list goes on, yet knowing and integrating these causes isn’t helping.
Instead I want to relish my stinking anxiety and ignore the scratching at my arms to check emails when my body is in pain, telling me it needs rest. Like a pig in shit I want to roam through my crazed angst which encases me like aspic when I’m sick, instead of continuing to try and work. Malaise productivity tis a madness, but also quite possibly a lost opportunity.
Last week I had a horrible flu virus that’s still lingering now, it was escorted by a heavy period and then later chaperoned by the delights of a water infection. I know, you should have seen me: it was ugly. Mark described my complexion as a shade of green which seemed to be accompanied by an, as yet, unnamed facial rash. I looked how I felt: nasty. I cancelled all my meetings and then oscillated between sitting at my desk typing away emails in a nightie and crying on the sofa because Mark wasn’t “taking how ill I am seriously.” I put an out of office on and yet replied instantly to every email I was sent. I took my laptop to bed with me – a big red burnout flag and very bad behaviour. I took client calls, edited a proposal and when I felt too weak to do that I did my accounts because that didn’t demand my ‘creative brain’ and therefore would be hugely manageable as I haemorrhaged blood, coughed my guts up and yelped whenever I needed to pee. I managed my dizziness by taking occasional breaks where I’d watch an episode of some abhorrent reality TV show which was ruined anyway by my intermittent tab changover so I could refresh emails. I did feel bad for Khloe though, and then pondered whether I should die my hair blonde again. My sister’s feelings on the matter were clear: “No, don’t do that. Calm down. You haven’t let yourself go, you’re just sick”.
Now I really do want to give myself some credit where credit is due here. I once had a virus that was so obsessed with me it stayed for an entire month, and when it finally went away for a week, the psychopath came back and taunted me for another fortnight. I pretty much worked through the entire thing and wondered why I found myself sat at the bottom of my bed a month later begging a GP for antibiotics over the phone. (Antibiotics don’t work on viral infections). “I’m going to lose my job if I don’t get better,” I said, which wasn’t true because I’d gone to the office almost every day. She insisted the only thing that would lead to my recovery was rest and – this next verbal prescription she repeated – “drink lots of fluids”. I still find myself wondering sometimes: had I taken a solid week off and not checked work emails, would the virus have cleared up straight away?
Credit is due because I did cancel all my meetings last week, which is not something the old me would not have done. And I didn’t leave the house for six days which is growth (also post-Covid it’s apparently considered a selfish act to prioritise your desire to get things done over other people’s health). But I did mysteriously keep finding myself back at my desk which was awash with paracetamol, snotty tissues and, you guessed it: “lots of fluids”. I also found myself migrating work-related issues I felt too tired to deal with over to WhatsApp and converting calls I’d said I wasn’t well enough to take into voicenotes.
No one around me encouraged this or demanded it, no one made me feel guilty or induced this wavering angst whereby I was working – not working – working – not working… and on and on it went until I wasn’t sure if I was representing Khloe Kardashian’s memoir or acquiescing under a feather duvet with a hot water, lemon and ginger. There was anxiety about not getting better for weeks if I didn’t rest and there was anxiety about not working and ending up client-less, broke and desolate. This seems irrational because it is irrational, but with mortgage rates rocketing and a rental crisis on our hands, our sense of stability and home is in flux – the one basic human need everyone deserves assurance of is being taken away. Anyway, these contrasting anxieties battled it out but seemed stuck in a perpetual tie-break that only added to my dizziness.
It’s important to be clear: I’m not referring to long-term or chronic illness, which I’ve also experienced. This is directed at those more fleeting ailments we think we can ‘push through’. And don’t mistake this as a plea for sympathy, rather a plea for other members to come forward and reconsider their approach. Maybe it’s time to say goodbye to our fabricated worst-case scenarios, which are things like *drum roll please* our work load is shunted by a few weeks (oh no!), our clients think – even just for a moment – “what a lazy bitch”, or we get sacked. These scenarios are highly unlikely when taking just two weeks sick leave. Yet for some reason, we can’t do it, can we? We crawl through the chest infection on hands and knees, grasping desperately at some shred of ‘I’m still available’; ‘I haven’t gone anywhere’. Hybrid working holds our hand whilst stabbing us in the back: calling in sick used to mean a physical absence ensuring we left our responsibilities the hell alone instead of having unprecedented access to our virtual in-trays. Who here hasn’t zoomed with the camera off from their sick bed? Raise your hand. Why is that being normalised?
I chatted to a literary agent on the phone recently who told me her back pain had been so bad the previous week she’d “wanted to die”.
‘Did you continue working?’ I asked, curiously.
‘Yeah, I didn’t like take a week off or anything. Although I think that is a thing people do.’
I spoke to another woman with the flu who made the humorous confession that she was admittedly too ill to walk her child to nursery and yet found herself in the kitchen making ‘unnecessary muffins’ said child would never eat. When I casually mentioned to another friend I was getting mercilessly attacked by mother nature and an AWOL immune system from below the waist, she dropped in: ‘oh they think I’ve got shingles’. She said she’d had it before and would ‘keep an eye on it’. I never got round to asking who they were. I’m assuming a medical professional, or a conscientious loved one. Identifying the cause clearly isn’t the salve because here we still are: Flu Melon, Shingles Melon, Bad-Back Melon and Everything-Below-the-Waist Melon, still partaking in this bleak painting of malaise productivity, a triptych of toxicity, cruelty and inefficiency.
I think the problem is that we’ve lost respect and appreciation for being sick. Now hear me out! There are things to be discovered from illness, new parts of ourselves to be acquainted with in our untrammelled imagination, new realms in our heart and mind when our perspective is shifted, and perhaps our inner demons can be more easily purged. When I had Covid last summer, it brought up so much shadow work, as if all my wounding and deepest insecurities were pushed to the surface. I found myself accusing Mark of plotting to have an affair (I had a very high fever). He hadn’t left the house in days, the only thing that boy was plotting was my next meal and how to coerce me into the tub. It’s odd but the experience sort of expelled something between us, gave way to a fresh layer of intimacy.
In Virginia Woolf’s ‘On Being Ill’ where she writes about the cultural taboos of illness, she explores sickness as a spiritual awakening, some bridge to undiscovered paths of the soul.
“Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness…it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”
I want to expunge malaise productivity. I want to languish in the bright flowers of my menstrual-induced temperature and remember what it feels like to while away under a duvet on the sofa in front of Disney films. I want to be a little slummock in unwashed sheets and spend time with a pain so natural it’s more real than any ‘I’m sorry to chase you but…’ I want my heart rate to slow down so that it rivals that of a hibernating tortoise, slowly slowly into relaxation as a state of jouissance. I want to stagnate; be so still I can hear the coalition of white blood cells heading forth for battle. I want to fall down and into my malaise, relish it, like that pig in shit.
There’s a good chance I’m rebranding sickness as productivity and selling it back to myself. Sounds likely, doesn’t it? But what is helpful is just talking about it with one another. A fellow melon said to me: “I want to absolve myself of it, it’s such a waste of feeling, so reductive.” Hearing those words made me settle into myself like the ginger steeping in my mug of fluids and think: it’s okay. It’s okay to stop, to close the laptop and say no when your body is in pain. But it’s a hell of a lot easier when we feel we’re all doing it together. Let’s value the ‘wastes and deserts of the soul’ where true, unrelenting rest feels so god damn good that nothing can compete or mend our bodies so miraculously.
I failed this time, naturally otherwise this piece would be nothing short or an earnest brag or a lecture no one asked for. I failed. But next time I am going to do better.
Join me in saying farewell to malaise productivity.
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I always enjoy reading your posts :)
If I remember correctly it wasn't all that long ago you went on a retreat and purged a whole bunch of stuff from the system of mind, body and soul? My experience with these sort of things is, just like Virginia Woolf describes, that sickness is very liberating but the flipside of this is that liberation also brings to light a great deal of sickness. These unpopped, festering bubbles of overstepped boundaries that we ignore and the hundred other things we accept along the way are given the chance to breathe when we exercise these liberation skills (retreats, yoga, meditation, whatever it is that we do). But this is it: it brings this stuff to LIGHT! Once its there it comes up on the surface, bubbles and burns and fucks us up, then goes away and we are left only with the memory. It's up to us not to hold on to the memory as the thing itself, it's exactly that which brings the sicknesses back into the body. Good on you for being sick and doing less than you would have done in the past, good on you for seeing there's still room for improvement, and good on you for putting it out there for other people to see. Sickness shows us our fears and our shortcomings but there's nothing for us to do in the sickness but to be right the fuck in there - and drink plenty of fluids, of course. When we're healthy we run toward our fears and disempower them. Keep up the good fight and I look forward to your next post :)
I spent the morning bemoaning the fact that I am so disappointed with myself for succumbing to illness before coming across your article! I’m resentful of the fact that my body is letting me down. I feel defeated and weak! What is it about our brain that just won’t admit defeat! Great read. I have now surrendered to the fact that I too need to slow down to recover from the dreaded November lurghy. It’s the only time I ever seem to get sick. I have reframed it since reading your piece and am now of the mindset that the reason I get unwell in November, is to kick start my immune system enough to keep me healthy and safe throughout the rest of the gruesome winter months! Now I have succumbed and am going to chill.... after I sweep the kitchen floor!🤪