Opinion What readers told us about how the pandemic changed their work lives

(Ana Galvañ for The Washington Post)

We are reclaiming our time.

That’s what came through loud and clear when we asked you, as part of my essay on how the coronavirus pandemic broke America’s bad romance with work, to tell us how the shift affected you personally. Whether we loved our job (or jobs) and profession, hated it or simply considered it a means of paying their bills, just about all our commenters agreed work had come to take on too much importance in our lives and the lives of others.

A number of our responders also wrote to say the pandemic had highlighted how few rights we possess on the job here in the United States, and how employers take advantage of that fact. At least within this self-selecting group, many said that even more than money, they wanted more control over how they spent their days.

As Scott Murray of Illinois wrote to us, “The pandemic also made me realize the sorry state workers face in this country. To quote the Verve, you’re a slave to money, then you die. That no longer describes me.”

Helaine Olen: How the pandemic ended America’s bad romance with work

Some themes that emerged, in our readers’ words:

Commuting was a huge drag on our lives.

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“It made me realize how much of my life I wasted commuting. I enjoyed being home so much that I decided to retire early.” — Kevin de Angelis, Oregon.

“I had been considering early retirement because work (40 hours) plus commute (10 hours) was eating up too much of my time. … I was allowed to continue to work remotely indefinitely, and I really like my job … so decided to continue because now I have tremendous flexibility other than a few mandatory meetings each week.” — John Ruzick, New Jersey

We are determined to reclaim time for family, friends and hobbies from the hours we devote to paid work.

“I was an executive chef and worked over 60 hours a week, six days a week. Having time off made me realize I enjoyed being home with my husband, spending time together and relaxing [by doing] oil painting [or] doing whatever I wanted to do. I came to believe there’s more to life than just work.” — Mark Young, Florida

“My work is now just a job. Although I take it seriously and still work up to 60 hours a week, I also work from home more, take my dog on walks during my lunch hour and take all of my vacation time, something that I rarely did prior to covid. … There are so many things I want to do in life that have absolutely nothing to do with this job.” — Janice Stafford, North Carolina

We want to define the terms of our labor.

“I no longer do everything asked of me. I set boundaries to protect my self-care. It is an ongoing sea of course correction.” — Laura O’Donnell, Ohio

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I was working in retail, but after getting laid off, and skipping through a few jobs, I now work as a paralegal for a legal aid organization. The pay is a little better, and I get to help folks in my community. I think, in the end, I’ll be better for it.” — Taylor Thorns, Los Angeles.

Some people felt betrayed by employers.

“I was laid off in 2020 with millions of people; it was very difficult to find a job. … It has been a very difficult couple of years. Loyalty is out the window. I must do what is best for me. Companies are mostly run poorly, and then they panic and start laying employees off on any random day.” — L. Hammons, Texas

“Many people were treated incredibly poorly during the pandemic, being asked to do more with less until their health gave out. And when the time came for the promised payback, it wasn’t there — and we were being mistreated as well.” — Anthony Berardinelli, Ohio

Not everyone loved remote work.

“We shifted to work from home on March 15, 2020. It made me see the possibility of working from home and still be productive; yet after two years, it blurred the lines between home life and work life so much, and I made a conscious decision to work back at the office to keep that work-life balance intact.” — Ephraim Fermin, Virginia

But others said remote work allowed them to make new connections and improve their lives.

“Though I was physically isolated at home (I live alone), the pandemic actually pushed me into closer social and emotional contact with my local community through networks of mutual assistance, and led me to become more involved in local nonprofits. This in turn made it easier to imagine remaining socially embedded and active during retirement, and thus made early retirement more attractive.” — Alison Case, Massachusetts

“My quality of life is so vastly improved by not going to an office that I swore not to return to office life, with all its distractions and toxic positivity. A recruiter didn’t believe me, and asked, “How often would you be willing to go to the office?” And I said, “Never. I’m never going to an office.” I got the job after one interview, and my manager is very pleased with my work. I’m lucky that the kind of work I do can be done from home.” — Lisa Tinker, Los Angeles

Some noted they see all these changes not just in ourselves, but in others, too.

“I know many people who still want to work remotely, and people seem to have less tolerance for being constantly stressed out by work.” — J.D. Shapiro, New Jersey

“Being an ex-engineer, where 50-hour workweeks were very common, it’s great that people reject those types of hours, especially salaried workers. Good luck to Elon Musk for trying to light a fire under the Twitter professionals to save his $44 billion hide.” — David Schott, New Mexico

And many waxed philosophical on how the pandemic era interrupted their assumptions about our labor.

“The pandemic probably allowed a good many people to think twice about what they were doing to live. A 9-to-5, five-days-a-week job, has always been detrimental to my well-being. Yet, it was what “everybody” did. One time when I complained about the hours, my older brother said, “Welcome to the real world.” I think most people thought as he did. Though sometimes I am inconvenienced by the lack of service workers, I understand why we have fewer. I think the idea that people (all people) are supposed to work 40 hours a week and retire at 65 is contrived and dangerous for more people than we know.” —Constance Compana, Massachusetts

“For so many white-collar workers, work either is done every waking moment of our lives, with no clear delineation between work and leisure, or a whole week’s worth of work can actually be done in an hour, leaving us to pretend most of our waking lives that we matter. There’s something incredibly wrong about this. For people who have to be present at their “essential” jobs eight hours a day, 40 hours a week in order to receive benefits seems incredibly wrong. It eats up too much of your waking life. … I would like to know if there’s any appetite for Congress — or anyone — to redefine what a work day actually is, and ensure that everyone who works can have financial security and a sane work-life balance.” —Diane Sioni, California