Negotiating the pandemic with a chronic illness has presented its own set of unique challenges — chief among them the mental strain of knowing that a COVID infection is much more likely to lead to serious complications. Yet for all of the challenges of the past year, the forced transition to telework was not one of them. Rather, it offered a glimpse into how systemic changes to national security culture could level the playing field for people with chronic illnesses. For me, teleworking this past year offered some relief from the exhausting toll of trying to fit the mold of a professional in the nuclear policy community while battling systemic lupus. And it made me admit I can’t go back to the pre-pandemic expectations of what work looks like in this field.
After a decade in the nuclear policy community, my illness isn’t exactly a secret, despite my initial efforts to keep it so. Lupus is one of the so-called “invisible diseases,” because the main symptoms — extreme fatigue and joint pain — mean that you don’t always “look sick” when you’re struggling. But the treatments are not always so easy to hide. Two rounds of chemo, in particular, drove me to admit to a lot of people in this field that I have lupus.
In many ways I’ve been more fortunate than most of the women I know, particularly in the national security community, who struggle with this disease or those like it. I have exceptional health insurance and generous sick leave. When I needed more flexibility in my hours and work location during chemo, I received that. My immediate colleagues understood when I needed more time or turned down opportunities that would have been good for the organization, and they supported my decision to do so. Despite that understanding, I still worry constantly about being perceived as “weak” or “less committed” if my health dictates a deviation from the expected mold.
That’s because there are limits to what organizational policies can accomplish if the broader community punishes or discourages deviations from expected norms and practices. Allowing flexibility to balance work and health needs isn’t enough; we need to create a culture that supports the whole human and empowers people to grow in their careers without sacrificing their health. By creating a space where people feel comfortable and valued, I think we’ll also foster greater innovation and retain talent by demonstrating that creating an inclusive space does not come at the cost of policy gains.
MORE EFFICIENT FOR WHOM?
Common arguments in favor of returning to an in-the-office Monday-Friday 9-5 schedule often center on increasing effectiveness and efficiency by facilitating more collaboration and communication. To a certain extent, I understand those points. I’ve missed walking down the hall to bounce an idea off a colleague and chats over coffee to discuss complex problems that challenge my thinking.
But it is important to ask, is being in the office more efficient and effective for everyone, all the time? Our pre-pandemic policy culture would have us think that it is — call in options were limited, video conferencing was rarely used, most events were not streamed, and regular options to work from home were limited or non-existent.
Allowing flexibility to balance work and health needs isn’t enough; we need to create a culture that supports the whole human and empowers people to grow in their careers without sacrificing their health.
When my lupus is flaring, energy is a precious commodity. Sometimes just getting to the office feels like a herculean task. Trekking across town to work or for a meeting drains time and energy that could be better spent on other work. Being able to watch an event or hold a chat via zoom has been an equalizer. Having the freedom to put my feet up during a video conference or turn off the camera to hide a discoid rash may seem like small things, but for a person like me, the physical and mental comfort afforded are significant, and they translate into more effective, efficient production. These minor adjustments to regular meeting space also mean I can still participate if I’m seeking treatment or seeing a specialist outside of the area. Retaining options to call in to meetings and stream events after people trickle back to work would be a helpful way to recognize that in-person, all the time, isn’t more efficient for everyone and that it isn’t always a viable option.
Core hours could be another option to recognize that not everyone’s bodies can run on the same schedule. Pre-pandemic, I would arrive at the office by 7:30 am, because I’m at my most efficient in the mornings and I know that by the time late afternoon rolls around, it’s more of a struggle to stay focused if I’m dealing with fatigue and chronic pain.
Setting core hours where the expectation is that employees are accessible — whether working in the office or remotely — then allowing employees to do the rest of their work during the times that are best for them could be a boon for efficiency and health, and not just for people with chronic illnesses. As a mother I could also see the benefits of having more autonomy over my schedule so that I could spend more time with my son.
AVAILABILITY IS NOT COMMITMENT
Greater flexibility in work hours and maintaining digital options, however, will have little impact if people feel like they’ll pay a price for utilizing these opportunities. A persistent cultural toxicity in the national security community is the perception that availability is an expression of commitment; that if you’re not responding immediately to a breaking development, tweeting regularly, available at a moment’s notice, or accepting every opportunity thrown at you, you’re less dedicated.
I love what I do, but I hate the pressure and passive-aggressive digs that are the cost of trying to set boundaries and take time away. “Why didn’t you tweet about x” or “you should have found the time to write about y” are refrains that reinforce the perceived necessity of being “on” and “available” all the time. National security is not a 9-5 job. But it also does not need to be, and should not be, a 24/7 job.
There is no magic bullet for addressing this issue – pressures come from a lot of different places and will require changes to organizational policies and how we interact in community. But there are a few things that might be helpful.
For one, we can normalize saying “no” and break the perception that failing to accept opportunities to write, speak, or weigh in will close doors down the road or be perceived as a lack of commitment. Asking people to “make time” to take on an additional task that they initially decline — particularly if it comes from a funder or someone with more experience in the field — disrespects those people’s agency and sends the message that “no” is not an acceptable answer. In a space where funding is tight and opportunities for advancement scarce, that can feel like an unacceptable career risk even if your health suffers.
During the first few months of the pandemic, as people juggled work and childcare along with adapting to new digital environments, saying “no” felt more acceptable, in part because it felt more widespread and everyone had greater empathy for the challenge of balancing multiple priorities. Initially, I hoped this understanding would have a lasting impact on community culture, but it waned as the pandemic continued and the field slowly reverted back to pre-pandemic expectations for availability and productivity.
We should also communicate clearly that turning down an offer won’t jeopardize future opportunities. After declining an invitation to write for a journal several years ago — a decision I agonized over because it was a fantastic opportunity and I thought I should push myself to do, despite having just started chemo — the editor surprised me by asking me to keep them in mind for future pieces. This was a welcome change from having been told by a colleague that I would get a reputation as being “unreliable” if I turned down an invitation to write.
Relatedly, we have to create opportunities for people to feel like they can participate, even if they’re not physically present, so they don’t feel like they’re paying a price for teleworking. In the past, I dragged myself to the office numerous times when I shouldn’t have because I was worried about missing a meeting or event or falling behind. The one time I asked for a call-in option for a meeting amongst several groups, I was told I should “make the effort” to attend in person like everyone else. This past year has demonstrated the plethora of digital options to stay connected. Post-pandemic, we should prioritize remote accessibility and not wait for people to ask for such options.
Social media is another toxic area. The constant Twitter cycle makes it more challenging to set boundaries and the pressure to use Twitter to communicate with reporters and other experts isn’t healthy. Frequent, more edgy commentary on Twitter leads to media hits and interactions with reporters, which can be helpful for career growth. But it can also lead to death threats, bullying, and mansplaining. I have little patience for this when I feel like crap — not to mention that for chronic illnesses with stress triggers like lupus, its unhealthy. I don’t know what the best way to address this is, but we need to continue to think about how to promote healthy habits on Twitter and support people who choose not to engage so that they don’t feel like they’re paying a price for opting out. Again, working to mitigate the toxicities of social media won’t just benefit colleagues with chronic illnesses.
Writing this piece was more challenging than I anticipated, as I could never quite drown out the doubts over how it might be received. Will I be perceived as weak and unable to hack it? Will readers think I’m complaining? But these fears are why this piece needs to be written – so we can create a more inclusive community. The pandemic previewed for me what life and the future of work can look like if we’re willing to embrace digital innovations and transform our culture.
Kelsey Davenport is the Director for Nonproliferation Policy at the Arms Control Association.
The Future of National Security Work is a series of articles that examine the experience of work during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the future of work once the pandemic has gone. For more in the series, check back here.