Many of the world’s employees have been separated from their workplace for a large chunk of the past two pandemic-disrupted years, and it seems most of us aren’t too keen to go back. Just 3% of white-collar workers want to return five days a week, one survey showed earlier this year. Were it possible, the idea of sending a doppelganger into the office to serve eight hours on our behalf would probably be quite appealing.
That may be one reason for the popularity of Severance, the Apple TV-plus drama that concluded its first season this month. The dystopian techno-fantasy concerns workers who have chosen voluntarily to have a brain implant that separates their workplace selves from their outside identities, so neither has any knowledge or memory of the other. That’s one way to deal with the pain of abandoning a comfortable work-from-home routine.
The surreal netherworld of Severance eerily captures the sense of fracturing and disconnection that has pervaded the Covid era. The office on the subterranean “severed” floor is cavernous, sparsely populated and surrounded by a warren of empty corridors lit with antiseptic bright lights. That will resonate with the small minority (such as this writer) who have made an early return to the office. There have been many walks around deserted corridors, and few people to congregate with at the water cooler.
There are other reasons that Severance has struck a chord, though. It stirs up perennial issues of work-life balance, psychological boundaries and identity. Do the characters have the right to commit another part of their selves to perpetual sequestration in the workplace (particularly one as weird as that of Severance, where the in-office selves inexplicably perform meaningless tasks on ’80s-style computers for trivial rewards). If the two come into conflict, which is the real self?
The show is an exaggerated metaphor for how we behave in real life. Most of us adopt different personas to some extent in our work and home settings. The pressures are different, clearly. In a professional milieu, the need to conform to others’ expectations is a determinant of survival and success. So, for example, an introvert may act as an extrovert in the office if that’s what the job demands. Much psychological research has focused on the question of whether this out-of-character behavior is healthy and adaptive, or harmful.
“Acting out of character for too long is draining,” Lena Wang, a senior lecturer at RMIT University in Australia who researches workplace personality issues, said in an email. “When people do this, they put on a façade and act to meet others’ expectation rather than out of one’s free will – that deprived sense of autonomy, coupled with the less authentic self-expression, is hurtful for our functioning and wellbeing over the long run.”
In other words, it’s a question of degree. We can adopt the behaviors of people who aren’t like us – what the Canadian psychologist Brian Little terms “free traits” – as long as we don’t feel we are straying too far from who we really are. Do that, and we’re likely to experience stress. The 19th century American psychologist William James used a German word to describe this state: zerrissenheit, literally “torn-to-pieces-hood.” (Of course, adopting unfamiliar behaviors to achieve an end with full knowledge and awareness is different from evolving distinct separate identities — then we’re into the realm of multiple personality disorder.)
Beyond this, Severance hints at deeper psychological truths. We all carry the sense that we are the same person from minute to minute, acting consistently with who we feel ourselves to be. The accuracy of this belief is open to question – and has been for more than 2,000 years. The self is an illusion, the Buddha taught. It’s a position supported by modern neuroscience. The brain is less a unified organ than a series of separate structures laid on top of each other, like a house that has been repeatedly remodeled, Robert Ornstein wrote in Multimind. We “wheel” from part to part according to the discrete task that it evolved to handle.
Yet at the same time we have an inner compulsion toward unity and completeness. That’s also a notion with ancient roots, being a plank of Daoism that became a central theme of the work of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst.
If there’s a moral in Severance, it’s that separation doesn’t work, in the end. Not surprisingly, the severed office selves become frustrated with their cloistered below-ground existence and plot to break through to the outside. (The psychoanalytical analogy is obvious: The unconscious will make itself felt, and the more it’s ignored, the harder it will knock.) The lesson for employees contemplating a forced end to their work-from-home sojourn is: Stay in touch with every part of yourself, and don’t stray too far from whom you feel yourself to be in the pursuit of career success, if you want to avoid burnout and maladjustment.
We don’t know where Severance is heading ultimately. That will be for Season 2. You might want to check it out. Just make sure you and your work face watch it together.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Five Days a Week in the Office Is for the Best: Allison Schrager
• Return-to-Office Pitches Need Updating: Sarah Green Carmichael
• Why Revive the Commute When Gas Is So Pricey?: Brooke Sutherland
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Matthew Brooker is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. He previously was a columnist, editor and bureau chief for Bloomberg News. Before joining Bloomberg, he worked for the South China Morning Post. He is a CFA charterholder.
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